THEATER REVIEW: The ‘Fine’ in ‘Confinement’

Aram Muradian (l.) as Tavros in "Confinement."

BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN

The plays of Gurgen Khanjyan can be catnip for purveyors of sophisticated Armenian theater.  A production of “Averagneri Bahagneruh” (The Guards of Ruins) in 2009 was among the theatrical highlights of that year, and Tigran Kirakosyan’s recent staging of “Galank” (Confinement) at the Victory Theatre in Burbank will be remembered for its solid execution of a challenging script.  Who says there is no audience for such thought-provoking work?  The performance I attended was not only sold out, but filled to capacity by a younger-skewing crowd.

A lengthy one-act play, “Confinement” opens during a blizzard in the Yerevan home of Mardo and Nazeli (Nazo), a working class couple, whose daughter, Tina, dreams of being a musician.  The family’s life is fraught with poverty and cold, but its daily routine of squabbles and discontent is shaken by the unexpected appearance of a stranger named Tavros.

The ensuring action unfolds as a strange mix of fantasy and reality.  Absurdist twists, an Armenian limerick, Mardo’s shrill mother (played in drag by Byuzand Azizyan), and a buxom temptress contribute to the alchemy.  Unfortunately, the culmination of this build-up yields little more than a cliché ending and a final tableau that exudes the vibe of a sitcom.

Khanjyan’s writing is heavy on metaphor – the family members, in essence, shackle one another – and indebted to William Saroyan’s “My Heart’s in the Highlands” (just as “The Guards of Ruins” was clearly influenced by “The Cave Dwellers”).  Aside from directly referencing Saroyan’s title, “Confinement” mirrors its plot, which similarly involves a stranger showing up at a struggling family’s doorstep and enlivening its humdrum existence.  The strangers in both plays turn out to be runaways from institutions (albeit of different types), and both plays prominently feature musical instruments – Saroyan’s, a bugle; Khanjyan’s, a piano.

Music serves a key function in “Confinement.”  A sequence in which Tavros riffed on animal experimentation as Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” pulsated in the background was alone worth the price of admission.  The musical accents, however, ultimately grew intrusive and, by the time we heard strains from “Schindler’s List,” overused.  The technical elements of the show, particularly its lighting design, could have benefited from greater fluidity and polish as well.

Such minor missteps were easily overcome, however, by Kirakosyan’s grasp of the script’s disparate elements (and its tendency to veer between the tragic and the absurd), and by the gifted cast he’d assembled.  Leading this impressive ensemble was Aram Muradian (as Tavros), a veteran of “The Guards of Ruins” and a performer of remarkable versatility who’s as adept at highbrow monologues as he is at lowbrow slapstick.  On par with him were Sevak Avanesi as Mardo and Narine Jallatyan as Nazo; although they were a tad young for their roles (usually a pet peeve of mine), their characterizations were spot-on.  Avanesi, in particular, was so authentic in his deadpan portrayal of Mardo that he proved a natural foil for Muradian’s high jinks, while providing a crucial anchor for the production itself.

“Confinement” makes clear that Kirakosyan has the requisite talent pool for a permanent company of players.  Its next outing would need a few fixes – among them, a prompt start to the performance and a playbill – but so long as it chose another adventuresome script, we could look forward to another night of fine theater.

The Difficulties of ‘Dying’

Kevork Arslanian as John Heller, with Seta Teherian and Sirarpy Ajemian, in "Mernile Vorkan Tjvar E."

BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN

Mounting a production of Moushegh Ishkhan’s “Mernile Vorkan Tjvar E” (Dying Is So Difficult) is an ambitious undertaking.  The play tackles the clash of medicine and faith, even as it explores such grand themes as suffering, conscience, and the afterlife.

So infrequently is the play staged, in fact, that a visiting production by Toronto’s “Hrant Dink” Theater Company – locally hosted by the Organization of Istanbul Armenians – held great promise.  The imported revival, however, proved a middling affair, coming up short both in its acting and its production values.

Through alternating scenes, the play tracks the plight of two central characters – James Aramian, an Armenian-American university professor of economics who is terminally ill, and John Heller, an American, who receives Aramian’s brain through a transplant.  Heller benefits from Aramian’s mental prowess and goes on to achieve great success in his financial endeavors.  At the same time, he begins to be burdened with the thoughts and memories lodged in Aramian’s mind – especially, his pre-occupation with the Armenian Genocide.  Aramian, meanwhile, is ultimately declared medically dead, but since his brain continues to “live” in someone else’s body, is denied entry into heaven by St. Peter, who leaves him to linger in purgatory.

Sirarpy Ajemian’s production – performed, earlier this month, at the Agajanian Hall of the Manoogian-Demirjian School in Canoga Park – had updated Ishkhan’s decades-old script with contemporary references, but her cast could not make the play’s formal language sound fluid, despite its earnest efforts.  Lines were flubbed, and there were obvious instances when the players consulted scripts under the guise of stage business.

Performances suffered because the actors were too busy showcasing for the audience rather than developing relationships between the characters.  There were moments of esprit in Ajemian’s direction, and the company’s octogenarian doyenne portrayed Heller’s mother with verve.  Too often, however, the production painted with broad strokes – literally, in the case of its cartoonish set that featured handwritten “heaven” and “hell” signs, the latter accompanied by painted images of raging flames.

Of course, transporting an entire production from Toronto is no easy matter, and everyone involved in such a cultural exchange deserves kudos.  Hopefully, the Hrant Dink troupe can return to Los Angeles on future occasions, staging Armenian dramas with continually elevated caliber each time.

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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