BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
Armenians in Los Angeles commemorated the centennial of the Genocide last month with a march so mammoth that it resembled a human flood flowing through three of the city’s major thoroughfares.
The march was a watershed that eclipsed all other commemorative activities, including a number of cultural ones worth remembering.
In the realm of film, there was “1915.” In the realm of music, the Lark Musical Society joined with UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music to present the world premiere of Ian Krouse’s “Armenian Requiem.” And in the realm of art, the “Life 100” exhibit was a showcase of practically every major Armenian artist, while “iWitness,” an open-air installation of larger-than-life photos of Genocide survivors on three-dimensional metal frames, was both a soaring and searing experience.
But what of theater? Well, there wasn’t any new work that was fully staged for a multi-performance run, though one could argue that the March for Justice was our magnum opus, as 160,000 participants stepped onto the world’s longest stage – a six-mile stretch from Sunset to Wilshire – to tell a story of survival and proclaim, “I remember and demand.”
On literal stages, theatrical output pertaining to the Genocide was nominal, although the level of general theater activity itself was relatively high. Interestingly, the offerings came in diverse genres, ranging from traditional plays to open-air/site-specific performance, epic storytelling, and opera. The caliber varied from student-level work (a revival of Richard Kalinoski’s oft-staged work, “Beast on the Moon”) to professional (a single performance of Perch Zeytuntsyan’s “100 Dari Ants” [“100 Years After”] by the Gabriel Sundukyan State Academic Theatre of Armenia).
Spoken Word: ‘Zarteer Vortyak’
“Zarteer Vortyak” (Awake, My Son) – named after an Armenian patriotic song – was performed by the mother-and-daughter team of Araxy Kopoushian Tatoulian and Lory Tatoulian on April 17 at Abril Bookstore, which has become a hotbed of literary activity ever since it opened an adjacent gallery/performance space.
Told in both Armenian and English, and infused with poetry and song, “Zarteer Vortyak” was more an evening of oral history than theater. Araxy Tatoulian relayed the remarkable story of her father, who was adopted by and lived among Bedouins during the Genocide before being returned to the Armenian fold. Lory Tatoulian recounted how her paternal grandmother, Aguline, joined the Armenian resistance movement as a fighter, at one point even cutting her hair and going by the male name, Garabed.
Simply but poignantly structured, “Zarteer Vortyak” wisely relied on the strength of its stories, rather than artificial theatricality, to pay modest, yet compelling, tribute to a pair of Genocide survivors.
Staged Reading: ‘Staging the Unstageable’
Over at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, the Armenian Dramatic Arts Alliance presented “Staging the Unstageable” on April 28 – an evening of readings from three new plays. Emmy Award-winning actor Michael Goorjian and Academy Award-nominated actress Shohreh Aghdashloo were among the line-up of the evening’s lauded performers; bizarrely, the organization would not release photos of the event, except in conjunction with its own press materials, so none accompany this article.
“I Wish to Die Singing,” a docudrama by Neil McPherson, started off the evening, followed by “Forgotten Bread,” an exposition-heavy, yet moving, story by Sevan Kaloustian Greene that was well served by seasoned talents like Karen Kondazian and Sam Anderson.
The evening’s knockout piece, however, was Leslie Ayvazian’s “15/15,” superbly performed by the author herself, joined by Ken Davitian, Christine Kludjian, and Hrach Titizian.
Ayvazian is best known as the author of “Nine Armenians,” a somewhat sentimental work (which, incidentally, had been revived in Fresno earlier in the month). Yet her writing can have an absurdist bent. She had infused such absurdist elements into “15/15,” a post-Genocide play, to great effect.
The play unfolds in a mental institution, where John (played by Davitian) is hospitalized. His wife (Ayvazian) and daughter (Kludjian) are frequently in his room, as is an unnamed Turk (Titizian), whose presence is quite certainly imagined. The verbal confrontations with the Turk – who dismisses the victims of the Genocide as casualties of war – intimate that the Genocide and its denial were the causes of John’s mental trauma and breakdown.
As the play builds, the verbal confrontations turn physical, as John’s wife grabs the Turk by his hair and commands him to speak the truth about the genocidal atrocities committed against Armenians; but the Turk persists with his denials, even as the wife’s threats escalate. (So far as I know, Ayvazian is the first Armenian-American playwright since William Saroyan to give voice to a Turk in a play.)
In terms of set-up, “15/15” lends itself to comparison with Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and the Maiden” and even William Mastrosimone’s “Extremities,” in which victims of political and sexual violence, respectively, turn the tables on their aggressors. Judging from the performed excerpt , however, Ayvazian’s piece surpasses those earlier works with its verbal dexterity, its unconventional pacing (in which rapid-fire exchanges alternate with prolonged moments of minimal speech and movement), and its deft use of humor to provide much-needed respite from the play’s darker moments.
There is little question that “15/15” deserves a full production sooner rather than later. Judging from last month’s teaser, director Michael Arabian could mount a memorable staging of Ayvazian’s promising script.
Site-Specific Performance: ‘i Go On’
For the closing weekend of the “iWitness” installation at Grand Park, I myself had the opportunity to design an open-air/site-specific performance piece entitled “i Go On” that served as a rumination on loss, resilience, and remembrance.
Constructed as a procession along 14 “stations,” the one-time-only performance on May 30 involved 20 performers and the audience moving through all the levels of the installation both at the Music Center and in the park. The piece incorporated survivor testimonials, music, and choreographed movement in a climactic sequence that unfolded in the park’s fountain.
Epic Storytelling: ‘Daredevils of Sassoun’
Theater unrelated to Genocide themes abounded in May, and “Sasna Dzrer” (Daredevils of Sassoun), presented by Anahid Aramouni Keshishian at the ARTN Theatre on May 2 and 3, led the way. The project had begun as a workshop at UCLA, where Keshishian teaches and where it had a single performance on March 4. It was warmly received by a supportive crowd and was promptly revived with certain adjustments to the script and the staging. Due to demand, it added one final performance on May 15.
Performed in the dialect of the Sassoun region by eight of Keshishian’s students, “Daredevils” told the epic tale of a battle between its protagonist, Sassountsi Davit (David of Sassoun), and Msra Melik (the king of Musr or Egypt).
As staged, it was a stylized piece of oral storytelling, rather than a fully actualized work of theater. It is difficult to review because of that reason and because it featured non-actors, most of whom had no prior stage experience, yet managed to hold their own. Sure, there were a number of shortcomings. For instance, the choreography of the piece, while much improved since its March incarnation, remained visually cluttered. And the choice of having multiple actors portray the same character confused an already-challenging text. (A simple handout with a synopsis would have helped the audience access the dialect more easily.)
But theatrical polish was not the point of “Daredevils.” Its triumph lay in its very existence – in the very fact that eight young Armenians were passing on an oral history tradition by performing an epic in the dialect of its origin. What the production lacked in nuance, they amply made up in energy and confidence. They were visibly excited by the challenge before them, and their enthusiasm was infectious.
Improvisation: ‘Armenian Improv 2’
Following their immensely successful foray into improvisation a couple of years ago, Vahe Berberian and his cohorts are back for a second iteration that opened on May 15 and runs through June 21 at the Whitefire Theatre.
“Armenian Improv 2” has kept the structure of its original, albeit with enhancements – particularly, the addition of music, thanks to Ara Dabandjian’s on-stage accompaniment. Several of the sketches are familiar. “Languages,” for instance, involves one performer “speaking” a foreign language suggested by the audience – Chinese, German, and Hindi were the opening night selections – while another performer “translates.”
Performing the same scene in different genres was a new type of sketch. It did not fare as well as the troupe’s signature piece: organically building a narrative around a word suggested by the audience by having different performers enter and exit the scene. On opening night, the suggested word, “laundry,” inspired some funny situations and allowed the cast – including its newest member, veteran comedian Harout Soghomonian – to shine.
Other highlights included an Armenian rap, a Bollywood performance, and the reenactment of a scene from a made-up book entitled “The Stupid Sheep’s Crime,” a subversive piece about a disturbing love triangle. The result ended up a cross between Edward Albee’s “The Goat” and Monty Python’s iconic Black Knight sketch (“just a flesh wound”), thanks to capable work by Chris Bedian, Levon Shant Demirjian, and Shahe Mankerian.
Not all the pieces were entirely successful, and the absence of a female cast member was a drawback. (Here’s hoping for Paleny Topjian’s return to the ensemble.) Soghomonian, however, was a fine addition, and the performers were consistently strong, although some of them – Kevo Manoukian and Berberian himself – were underused.
Berberian had ceded directing duties to Melissa Mazman, who was more of an emcee for the proceedings rather than the circus ringleader she will need to become as the run progresses. What’s important is that she had strong grasp of an essential feature of her job – ending each sketch on a high note before it ran out of steam.
The busy month of May culminated with opera. Lark’s ambitious but traditional staging of perhaps the most famous Armenian opera, “Anoush,” had four performances at the Ambassador Auditorium over two weekends. “Anoush” featured world-class opera singers in its leading roles, including Shoushik Barsoumian and Hasmik Papian alternating as its eponymous tragic heroine.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His play “Happy Armenians” is slated for production this fall.