Australia Dispatch: Kachoyan’s Star Ascends Down Under

John Khachoyan

BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN

Sitting in a theater in Sydney a few weeks ago, waiting for the start of the play “Sweet Nothings” – directed by John Kachoyan – I could not help but think of William Saroyan’s lines about Armenians encountering one another in all corners of the world.

In truth, this particular encounter was not the type of happenstance Saroyan was describing. My life has actually intersected with Kachoyan’s on three continents, although we’ve only met once. I did not see him during my brief stay in Sydney – he was stuck in Melbourne – so the play was his proxy.

Kachoyan, who is Melbourne-based, belongs to a rare breed of sought-after directors who make their living in theater. He favors new plays and neglected classics, and his credits as director and dramaturge run a wide spectrum, from Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale” to world premieres by contemporary playwrights, particularly Australian ones like Ben Ellis (“Unrestless” and “The Captive”).

Although he has roots in Australia, Kachoyan has spent considerable time studying and working in Canada and England, having obtained a Master’s degree in theater from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.

During the years he spent in England between 2007 and 2011, Kachoyan took part in the Old Vic’s New Voices Program and was a member of the Young Vic’s Genesis Directors Program; he founded IronBark to present Australian works to audiences in the United Kingdom; and he was the Resident Assistant Director at London’s intimate but esteemed Finborough Theatre.

Kachoyan staged "Sweet Nothings" in Sydney.

That’s how our paths first crossed, in 2010, when the Finborough staged a reading of one of my plays, “The Delicate Lines,” as part of Vibrant 30 – a 30-day festival of play readings to celebrate the theater’s 30th anniversary. Kachoyan directed British television actress Kazia Pelka (“Coronation Street”) in the solo piece about an Armenian woman in the aftermath of the Genocide as she struggles with her poet brother’s descent into madness and with her conflicted love for his best friend.

Unable to make it across the pond at the time, I neither got to meet Kachoyan nor see the staged reading. By the following year, he was back in Australia, serving as Director-in-Residence for the Bell Shakespeare Company, which performs at Sydney’s iconic Opera House and on tour across the country. He is now the Co-Creative Director of MKA: Theatre of New Writing.

We finally met earlier this year, when he was in Los Angeles, over a leisurely lunch. He was witty in conversation and, despite his relative youth, full of knowledge about theater history and technique.

By sheer coincidence, I was on his continent mere months later, catching some theater alongside diving in the Great Barrier Reef and tasting kangaroo.

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I saw “Sweet Nothings” at the Wharf Theatre complex, which literally overlooks the Walsh Bay, adjacent to Sydney Harbor – as beautiful a location for theater as one can dream up. The play by David Harrower is an adaptation of “Liebelei” by Arthur Schnitzler, who generated much controversy at the turn of the 20th century with his sexually-charged and still-influential drama “La Ronde.”

There’s no absence of sexual charge in “Sweet Nothings,” which opens with a dinner party for two young couples, where drink flows freely and does away with inhibition. The host, Fritz, indulges the romantic hopes of Christine, who is unaware of his affair with a married woman. The party is interrupted, however, by the married woman’s husband, who has discovered the affair and who challenges Fritz to a duel.

In its second act, the play shifts course, making Christine its central figure. It is a difficult script to navigate, but Kachoyan had staged it with finesse. His take on the opening act was a physical, high-octane approach, with the actors dominating the two-tier set, often by leaping on or over furniture. It made for no-holds-barred theater that was compelling to watch.

As the second and third acts softened in plot and dialogue, Kachoyan appropriately scaled back the feverish pitch, settling in for a well-executed character study by eliciting fine performances from his cast.

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Kachoyan expects to be as busy as ever in the new year. He is slated to direct “Dogmeat” for MKA at the Perth Fringe Festival in February, but, in the meantime, he is work-shopping “Gilgamesh,” his own adaptation of Joan London’s novel, which traverses from Australia to Soviet-era Armenia.

“Gilgamesh” is initially set in rural Australia, where its central character, Edith, meets a visiting Armenian named Aram, an orphan of the Genocide. Their brief time together results in Edith’s pregnancy, and she eventually sets out for Armenia, with her young son in tow, in search of Aram, arriving in Yerevan on the eve of World War II.

“I am very excited about it,” Kachoyan wrote me via e-mail recently. I could guess why. I remembered what he’d written me after the reading of “The Delicate Lines”: “It’s a pleasure to be presenting Armenian work.”

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