Theater Review: ‘Armenian Improv’ Marks Milestone

Shahe Mankerian and Vahe Berberian (Photo by Avo John Kambourian)

BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN

Setting a milestone in the evolution of diasporan theater, Armenian improvisational comedy – or “improv” – marked its arrival last Sunday.

It arrived, specifically, at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks, courtesy of Vahe Berberian and six cohorts – Chris Bedian, Sako Berberian, Levon-Shant Demirjian, Shahe Mankerian, Kevo Manoukian, and Paleny Topjian – who claimed the art form for the Armenian language, demonstrating an impressive command of its rigors and delivering inspired comedy along the way.

The show, simply titled “Armenian Improv,” is slated for only five more Sunday-night performances (through August 25) in the intimate Whitefire space and is virtually certain to be sold out.

Improv is the hardest form of comedy because it requires performers to create comedy – not just perform it – and to do so in the blink of an eye. It requires wit, mental and verbal agility, and flawless timing. Each performer must keep up with whatever’s happening on stage, even while thinking up what will happen next.

Our newly-minted Armenian improv artists were up to the task – fearless, full of charm, and uniformly superb.

The evening’s first exercise, “Hands,” involved each ensemble member providing commentary on a random topic suggested by the audience – “hair,” “parrot,” and “mathematics” being among them – while another ensemble member furnished the hand gestures accompanying the words.

In two iterations of “Six Corners,” audience suggestions served as the premise of a story, which was then told from six different viewpoints – like “Roshomon” on the comedic fly. Neither the first story about a “rooster” nor the second about “clouds” measured up to the evening’s best work. No matter; both had their highlights, and the swiftly moving show lost little of its momentum.

Paleny Topjian and Levon-Shant Demirjian (Photo by Avo John Kambourian)

“The Good, the Bad, and the Unacceptable” featured three counselors dispensing advice – or, as the title implies, misguidance – in response to audience queries. Wicked questions from audience members prompted subversive replies from Paleny Topjian on giving birth and from Vahe Berberian on the proper means of catching a squirrel. His take? “Let the squirrel catch you.”

The evening’s triumphs were two sketches entitled (for no reason I could discern) “Kna Merir, Yegour Sirem” – an Armenian saying best translated as “Go Die; Then I’ll Love You” and often used to lament the lack of accolades for artists and writers until they’ve passed on.

Each sketch began with two pairs of performers setting up two entirely different scenes; the remaining performers then floated in and out of the sketch to develop the narrative by organically merging the storylines.

One story, built upon the word “belt,” grew into a deliciously outrageous piece about a famous painter (of belts!) who is kidnapped by art thieves, suffers torture, and falls in love with one of his captors. Referencing everything from the action of heist films to Stockholm Syndrome, the sketch reached its apex with a closing line from Levon-Shant Demirjian that could not have been more perfect in its sadomasochistic edginess if it were scripted.

Shahe Mankerian and Kevo Manoukian (Photo by Avo John Kambourian)

A second, equally zany, story showcased characters like St. Gregory the Illuminator and a man convinced he was a blender in a past life. (Anyone who doubts that a blender can be the source of multiple laughs has not seen Vahe Berberian in fine form.) The frenzied sketch turned into bedlam (literally, but in the best way), yielding another perfect closing line – this one from Berberian himself.

Performed without props, save for a couple of chairs, “Armenian Improv” relied solely on the talents of its cast. Impeccable timing was equally key to the show’s success. Whenever a set-up would not support more than a few jokes, Berberian wisely cut the proceedings short. This was evident in a fun bit that featured the performers “speaking” in whatever language the audience suggested, with an interpreter “translating” their gibberish. Longer pieces were expertly stopped at their high point.

While improv is prevalent in American comedy, “Armenian Improv” was a groundbreaking experiment – one that has now made a unique contribution to our brand of diasporan theater, expanded its realm, and opened up a new chapter of exciting possibility.

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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