CRITICS’ FORUM: A Year of Ventures and Growth

"Sale," a tragicomedy, was among the plays staged at the Armenian Theater Festival.

BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I had the pleasure of moderating a panel at the ANCA Grassroots Conference, which examined the interplay between Armenian arts and activism.  A couple of weeks later, another panel at the Glendale Public Library focused on the challenges facing Armenian artists in the Diaspora, touching on such issues as time and money constraints, audience development and community support, and the choice of language in which to create.

At both events, painter/playwright/performer and panelist Vahe Berberian articulated a heartfelt lament for the ongoing demise of the Armenian language (particularly its Western dialect) in the diasporan setting.  Contrary opinions were expressed as to how doomed Armenian really is, since the language has seen worse days throughout the long course of its history, such as during the era of Ottoman oppression.  Still, the fact was inescapable that of nearly a dozen artists on the two panels, Berberian was the only one consistently writing in Armenian; for nearly everyone else, the language of creation was predominantly English.

English has, indeed, been the language of most “Armenian” plays I’ve reviewed for almost a decade.  This year, however, marked an exception.  Although output was not ample, virtually every Armenian production of note was actually in Armenian.

There was Berberian’s own “Yete” (If), the latest installment in his series of humorous monologues; Anahid Aramouni Keshishian’s “Ka Yev Chka II” (There Is and There Isn’t II), the sequel to an earlier autobiographical solo work; and Vahik Pirhamzei’s “Portsarou Sdakhosner” (Experienced Liars), the follow-up to “Azniv Sdakhosner” (Honest Liars).

Khoren Aramouni’s “Patand” (The Hostage) was memorable for Aram Muradian’s taut performance as a traumatized soldier.  In a vast departure from that intense role, Muradian donned drag to play “Charley’s Aunt” in Krikor Satamian’s translation of that farce.  Having been impressed by Muradian’s virtuoso performances for some years now, I will be collaborating with him this spring to stage a solo rendition of Levon Shant’s iconic play “Hin Asdvadzner” (Ancient Gods).

By year’s end, Armenian theater had achieved several milestones, three of which deserve extended mention.

Festival Launch
Perhaps the development of greatest import was the launch of an Armenian Theater Festival by the Hamazkayin Educational and Cultural Society of the Western U.S.

The inaugural event flouted the traditional structure of a theater festival in that it did not feature multiple ensembles; rather, Hamazkayin played host to a single troupe – the “Sos Sargsyan” State Theater Company from Armenia – which performed four different shows in a five-day span.  These included the drama “44 Astichani Vra” (44 Degrees); the tragicomedy “Sale”; the children’s tale “Anpan Hourin” (Idle Houri); and a variety show.  In a remarkable feat, an estimated 1,400 students were bussed from Armenian schools to daytime performances of the plays.

While the caliber of the shows fluctuated, the acting was stellar throughout, and there’s already talk of having the troupe back next year.  A return visit would be a treat, and Hamazkayin should be commended for its ambitious undertaking.  Nevertheless, the organization should be mindful of balancing its resources so that its commitment to local talents in need of institutional support is not compromised.

Shahe Mankerian and Vahe Berberian were part of the pioneer cast of "Armenian Improv."

Intro to Improv
If the “Sos Sargsyan” ensemble introduced new plays and actors to Los Angeles audiences, “Armenian Improv” exposed them to a new art form.  Improv (short for “improvisation”) is quite possibly the hardest form of comedy, since it requires actors to make up – on-the-spot and often guided by audience suggestions – the very sketch or scene they are performing.

Conceived by Vahe Berberian, the show was a rollicking ride, delivering edgy comedy at a rapid clip.  In their maiden outing, Berberian and his six cohorts – Chris Bedian, Sako Berberian, Levon-Shant Demirjian, Shahe Mankerian, Kevo Manoukian, and Paleny Topjian – proved themselves adept at the genre.  They spun complex narratives, marked by sharp humor, to generate hearty laughs and earn enthusiastic audience response.

Here’s hoping that “Armenian Improv” was not a one-time-only experience, but that future iterations of the show and improv itself will become staples of Armenian entertainment.

The "Big Bad Armo Show" made a stop in the Central Valley while touring California.

Theater in the Provinces
As Berberian ventured into new genres, Lory Tatoulian was venturing into new territories.  The creator of the “Big Bad Armo Show” traveled the length of California with the “best of” her show, making her way from San Francisco through the Central Valley to San Diego.

Tatoulian hails from Reedley and has family in San Diego, so those smaller – and theatrically underserved – Armenian communities are familiar to her.  She and her cast can now boast of having performed in Eden – that is, the town of Yettem in Tulare County.

Certainly such outreach affords mutual benefit, filling a void for communities that lack any measure of Armenian theater, while widening the audience base for Armenian theater artists who embrace them.

So the past year of Armenian theater can be remembered as one of ventures and growth – through cultural exchange, through geographic reach, and through the exploration of new genres.  It’s a fine trajectory for Armenian theater to be on, inspiring artists to sustain the momentum in the new year.

Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is an adaptation of Levon Shant’s “Ancient Gods.” You can reach him or any of the other contributors to Critics’ Forum at comments@criticsforum.org. This and all other articles published in this series are available online at www.criticsforum.org. To sign up for a weekly electronic version of new articles, go to www.criticsforum.org/join. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.

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