You may know Anthony Barilla for his many, many stellar productions with Infernal Bridegroom Productions. In 2007 he left IBP to move to Mitrovica, Kosovo with his wife, and the result of his time there is a new musical called Apocalypse Town.
The show speaks with a biting hometown humor that only a Houstonian can bring to a monologue. Throughout the show Barilla's musings draw parallels between Kosovo and his hometown, such as a kind of cultural amnesia that continuously assures us that there was some better time when we were a music town and the love/hate relationship that ensures that few of us ever leave.
The music he brings back from Kosovo, adapted as needed for Western audiences and with English lyrics, might have come from some of our most hillbilly, Hank Williams moments. The point that he drives home time and time again is that the history of the region's music is the history of drinking and pretty women, and he often performs such tunes in classic country style to drive that point home. It's impossible not to sing along with the chorus of "Alcohol + Hate II."
The mixture of heartfelt confession about the transitory nature of Mitrovica's identity, caught as it is between the Serbian and Albanian factions, resembles the open honesty of the original runs of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The ones before the movie ensured all future productions would lose the concert film feel and strive hard to be regular musicals. Barilla also brings to mind the painfully underrated Cory McAbee, he of the brilliantly outlandish Billy Nayer Show musicals.
Often there is little more than Barilla seated at a desk, slowly killing his brain cells and a bottle of Kosovo brandy. Behind him on a screen flash Slavic city scenes, and footage of the hooded crows that the Slavs believe are magic, pick-pocketing blackbirds. Like a good bar storyteller, he weaves a web of digs and smiles that is deeper for the pathos that lies beneath them.
No one remembers the Kosovo war in America. It's a minor conflict from the Clinton administration that is sandwiched in somewhere between the Gulf Wars like some kind of straight to DVD spin-off. The people of Kosovo remember, though. In Clinton's case they remember him as a sort of savior, and there are statues and streets named for him all over the Albanian side of the river. There's even a popular song about Komrade Clinton dedicated to him, and the mad nature of the conflict is brought home in a simple ode to Woodie Guthrie performed by Barilla.
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It's a little more than halfway through the show that Apocalypse Town loses much of its laughs after showcasing footage of Mitrovica being bombed in the war. The vaguely medical-looking black and white footage, shown in silence, makes the detonation of the bomb look like a phoenix being aborted in the process of its rebirth. In the aftermath, Barilla tends to put forth a more fractured and bitterly political front.
In the end, Apocalypse Town is the experience of living in a place that doesn't truly know what it is, but still holds its ghosts dear to its heart. Barilla's description of Mitrovica is as exotic as it is familiar. Like Texas herself, the most famous battle they have is the one they lost. It's a testimony to victory in loss, the accomplishment of surviving, and of comebacks unrealized. In the music of Kosovo, we can see every unrecognized Houston star.
Maybe that's the souvenir that Barilla brought back home, the camaraderie of the singing ghosts, the drunken dance music, and pretty girls who deserve a serenade.
Apocalypse Town runs through Sunday, March 25 at DiverseWorks.