THEATER REVIEW: Where Theater Meets ‘Life’

Maro Ajemian, Houri Mahserejian, and Paleny Topjian in "Gyank" (Photo by Avo Kambourian)

BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN

It’s unnerving to think about how few Armenian-language plays have been staged in Southern California since Vahe Berberian’s last outing, “Baron Garbis,” four years ago.  The arrival of Berberian’s newest drama, “Gyank” (Life), reminds us exactly what we’ve been missing.  A mature work that boasts a solid script and cast, “Gyank” premiered last weekend at the El Portal Theatre in the NoHo Arts District, where it will run through April 1.

The top-tier venue allows for Berberian’s most sophisticated production to date, enhanced by the muted elegance of Betty Berberian’s minimalist, yet chic, set design and Henrik Mansourian’s subtle lighting.

Anne Bedian and Sako Berberian in "Gyank" (Photo by Avo Kambourian)

From its opening moments, “Gyank” explores the junction between life and death by placing its central character, Haig, a playwright, in a coma.  Several of the play’s scenes unfold in a hospital, where Haig’s family keeps vigil, while flashbacks capture Haig’s former life – particularly, the disintegration of his marriage.

Within this structure, Berberian engages in some meta-theatricality as he weaves two narrative threads – the first, Haig’s story as Berberian writes it; the second, Haig’s story as Haig himself (the playwright within the play) writes it.  Intriguingly, the two versions arrive at different ends.

Haig’s comatose condition is defined by duality as well.  The present action depicts Haig’s physical coma; the flashbacks intimate a deadening of his spirit and that of his wife, Sona.  In the course of the couple’s escalating arguments, Sona recounts her early, vibrant years with Haig, when their lives were filled with theatrical endeavors, nourished by art and culture, and pulsating with debate over the political and philosophical issues of the world.  Despite her fervent defense of it, however, the life of intellectual activity favored by Sona comes across as remote – somewhat removed from the realm of deep emotion and love.  Sona’s daughters, Shake and Araz, exude a similarly detached sensibility, whereby they coolly process their father’s predicament, rather than feeling the terror that the prospect of a parent’s death would engender.

In a notable departure from Berberian’s earlier plays, which are usually – and, in a couple of cases, exclusively – populated by men, “Gyank” yields the stage to its female characters.  A lovely scene features a quartet of them – Haig’s mother, wife, and daughters – yet provides little insight into these women, given its focus on the play’s recurrent themes.

Those themes are not novel, but hearing them expounded in Armenian is.  And therein lies the play’s magic.  “Gyank” examines diasporan Armenian life in all its ordinariness – a life of work, marital woes, familial obligations, and, of course, illness.  That’s not something we see often in contemporary Armenian-language plays, which tend to spoof our diasporan lives, instead of reflecting and illuminating them.

Berberian directs the piece with lucidity, although the stage action is a bit lacking in movement.  He elicits a visceral performance from Sako Berberian as Haig, but Anne Bedian’s portrait of Sona remains monochromatic.  As the couple’s daughters, Paleny Topjian and Houri Mahserejian exhibit natural stage presence, while, as Haig’s mother, Maro Ajemian deftly delivers the play’s funnier lines.

Casting an Armenian-language play is always a major challenge, given the dwindling number of actors who speak the tongue sufficiently well to master a script.  I dare say, however, that if all Armenian plays were as substantial as “Gyank” and as professionally produced, interest in the art form would scale new heights.

Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”).  His latest work is “Happy Armenians.”

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