Theater Reflections: Visions of ‘Ancient Gods’

Aram Muradian is giving the performance of a lifetime in a solo adaptation of 'Ancient Gods.' (Photo by Armineh Hovanesian)


BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN

The trouble with me being both a theater critic and a playwright is that I can’t review my own work. So this writing must necessarily be a non-review of “Hin Asdvadzner” (Ancient Gods), my adaptation of Levon Shant’s iconic play, which began a three-week run at the NoHo Arts Center last Friday. Let’s call this piece a reflective essay instead.

Perhaps “adaptation” is not exactly the right word to describe what I’ve done to Shant’s script, which I’ve re-envisioned as a solo performance piece. In my version, a sprawling multi-act drama – originally written for a cast of dozens – is performed by a single actor. Why, oh why?

I figured it was past time to start framing classical Armenian plays – now older than a century – in a new light, rendering them accessible to contemporary audiences and infusing them with a present-day sensibility.

My decision was partly motivated by necessity. Staging a play with an army of actors (portraying such characters as monks, sea-nymphs, and winds – yes, winds) was neither logistically nor economically feasible. Sadder still, I knew that our community lacked a large enough pool of professionally trained actors, who are fluent enough in reading and speaking Armenian, to fill such a cast at a uniformly high caliber. Besides, I wanted to work with actor Aram Muradian, having seen and reviewed his consistently superb performances around town for some years.

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“Ancient Gods,” a mainstay of Armenian theater for the past century, seemed a perfect choice for re-interpretation. Its author is a giant of Armenian drama, whose works include “Yesi Martuh” (The Egoist), “Gaysruh” (The Emperor), “Ingadz Perti Ishkhanouhin” (The Princess of the Fallen Castle), and “Oshin Bayl” (Bailey Oshin). Alongside being a writer, Shant was a political figure – having served in the parliamentary hierarchy during the first Armenian republic – and an educator. He was among the founders of the Hamazkayin Educational and Cultural Society and was instrumental in the establishment of the Jemaran academy in Beirut, where he was principal for 20 years, developing the pedagogy and authoring textbooks.

His most famous work, “Ancient Gods,” depicts a young monk’s crisis of faith and struggle with carnal temptation after he saves a woman from drowning at sea. The play, as I’ve re-written it, opens during a storm, as a boat is headed to an island in the middle of Lake Van. Amidst the violent waves, the woman falls overboard, prompting the young monk to dive in after her. As he pulls her ashore, their bodies touch, arousing sensations within the young monk.

Shaken by the incident, the young monk begins questioning his vows of solitude and celibacy, and, indeed, his very faith. He cannot help recalling the sea and his glorious battle with the waves. He tries to pray and repent, but the vision of the woman he saved continually appears to him. So begins a clash between the young monk’s devotion to God, instilled in him by his mentor, the Father Superior, and his awakening to worldly pleasures – personified by the ancient gods.

The play, while based in reality, features a number of fantastical dream sequences, including one involving sea-nymphs. A climactic scene unfolds in a pagan temple, during a feast in honor of Vahagn, the pagan god of courage, and Asdghik, the goddess of love, beauty, and water.

Written in the expressionist style during the early part of the 20th century, Shant’s play is heavy with symbolism. It was performed at the time in Constantinople and throughout the Caucasus, and was translated into French, German, Italian, and Russian, and even staged by legendary theater director Konstantin Stanislavski in 1917. It has been revived a number of times in Lebanon by Hamazkayin’s Kasbar Ipegian Theater Company and in Armenia. It was turned into a ballet by Ani Dabat in Los Angeles. This solo adaptation is a world premiere.

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Solo performances allow for possibilities that plays with traditional structure do not. They dictate that a theatrical work be stripped to its essence. They make the writing more focused, the themes more personal, the level of emotion more intense. They demand more of the imagination – both on the part of artists and on the part of audiences.

For instance, Shant’s original script traces two parallel stories of impossible love featuring four characters. While I retain those stories, my adaptation is mainly structured around a trio of characters instead – namely, the young monk, the Father Superior who has mentored him in his faith, and Seta, the woman who corrupts that faith with her sensuality. This alternative structure invites thematic comparison with the Christian trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as well as with the Freudian constructs of id, ego, and superego.

Audiences unfamiliar with the genre of solo performance may be reluctant to appreciate its vibrancy. However, through dynamic staging, an ambitious set, moody lighting, emotive original music, and unforgettable acting, I like to think of this iteration of “Ancient Gods” as one that speaks to our time.

For starters, Maro Parian’s towering set of massive rock formations overhanging the young monk’s cave-like cell is a visual stunner. Henrik Mansourian’s lighting moves in such concert with the performance that one audience member described it as an “exceptional second character.” And Ara Dabandjian’s original music compositions oscillate between pulsating crescendos of a storm and fragile notes resonant of intimacy and love.

Our creative efforts would be for naught but for Aram Muradian’s monumental performance. I don’t say that out of bias for this show; I’d been complimenting Muradian’s acting (through my reviews) for years before we actually met in person last fall. I offered him one of the hardest roles any Armenian actor will encounter, and he has turned it into the performance of a lifetime. He is on stage for 70 minutes straight, alone and without a safety net, recreating a world of characters and events while navigating the show’s technical demands. The resulting portrayal is nothing short of a triumph.

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Shant’s grandson and cast members from much earlier productions of the play attended the opening weekend’s performances. They were kind with their praise and seemed altogether welcoming of my revamped staging. I wonder, though, how they reconciled it with the longstanding images of the play etched in their memories.

A friend of mine told me after seeing the solo performance that she suddenly found herself unable to think of “Ancient Gods” as a full-fledged play. Me too. I have not reread Shant’s script since completing my adaptation. At some point, I will. For the time being, though, I will cling to the notion of “Ancient Gods” as a chamber piece – and to the belief that Shant would be forgiving of the liberties that two Arams have taken with his masterwork.

Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). “Ancient Gods” is produced by the Garni Theater Ensemble in association with Hamazkayin Western U.S. It plays Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through March 23. For tickets, please visit www.itsmyseat.com/garni.

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