Aram Kouyoumdjian’s “Happy Armenians”
BY ISHKHAN JINBASHIAN
Assuming you haven’t already seen “Happy Armenians,” and in the interest of respecting your right to be startled by the play’s every twist, every diabolically delicious layer, the conscientious reviewer must refrain from revealing any of them. I’m a conscientious reviewer.
What can safely be divulged here is that “Happy Armenians,” written and directed by Aram Kouyoumdjian, is a sure-footed expedition into the fantastical, with a storyline that whisks your imagination away for a thrill ride across time and space, and a deft, nuanced ensemble performance that leaves you hankering for more. Halfway into the play, you might have the weird sensation that you’ve known these characters all your life.
Kouyoumdjian has dedicated “Happy Armenians” to the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, as a personal response to, and a meditation on, the 1915 catastrophe. But this is where orthodox comportment ends and the subversion of expectations kicks in, starting with the very title of the play. That’s because Kouyoumdjian, who wouldn’t be caught dead doing preachy or weepy, insists on exploring, and ultimately trying to illuminate, the spaces beyond a prevailing paradigm, even while operating within the familiarity of its context. His offering, this time around, is a wide-canvas, lucid dream on Armenian history and identity, complete with a string of natural tangents including globalism, corruption, corporate malfeasance, slavery, and environmental degradation, and all parsed through the prism of empire.
The empire in question is the modern Armenian superpower you haven’t heard of. In the parallel universe of the “Happy Armenians,” the Kingdom of Armenian Cilicia did not fall. Not only did it repel the hordes from the East, it went on to turn the tables on the world, conquering every bit of real estate worth exploiting, every tribe deserving to be enslaved, among them those fufu Europeans. Hence an Earth, not to mention a Moon, lorded over by a vast, mighty Armenian dominion, made all the more confident by its light-years-ahead technological prowess. The only problem is, the ailing Armenian emperor now needs an heir.
At the outset, the problem is solved as the lone candidate for the job, Levon, a young man determined to be a direct descendant of his namesake, King Levon V of Cilicia, is brought over from what Kouyoumdjian calls another track of history — you know, the one that saw the carving off of Armenia, the Genocide, the Soviet era, the growth of the diaspora to several times the size of the homeland, the Artsakh War, and independence. So which track of history would you prefer?
What makes “Happy Armenians” such a gleeful web of jolts is that while Kouyoumdjian ostensibly suggests answers to that question, he has enormous fun deconstructing them, right down to their unmentionables. The drama unfolds simultaneously across the personal and larger historical planes. There’s the matter of acclimatizing the young heir, a humble schoolteacher, to the role of helming a global empire; the emperor must make sure this happens, with the help of two individuals: his chief scientist and trusted advisor; and the queen has trouble accepting her husband’s imminent death, let alone his replacement with a stranger from another universe.
Not surprisingly, the proceedings are lubricated with richly textured, snappy dialogue, chock-full of incisive, at turns hilarious, social and political commentary. Kouyoumdjian also throws in a good dose of straight-faced empiricism to offset the fantastical, by invoking quantum physics, probability theory, and genetics.
And then there is the cast. The five actors, known as the Vista Players, are invariably wonderful, pulling off a complex palace drama with neither frills nor tricks. Their performances are calibrated with a watchmaker’s precision, airily and generously completing one another.
Playing Levon, the young heir to the throne, Daniel Hubbard delivers the subtle transformation of a regular guy who quietly nurtures progressive ideals into a bona fide emperor set to turn them into reality. With a facial structure screaming regal and a manner to match, Gregory DePetro, as the king, inspires both grudging reverence toward his character and a willingness to try to see the point of the crown’s Machiavellian pragmatism. Heather Lynn Smith, who plays Siran, the chief scientist, lends ample yet understated charm, as an assiduous genius who proves unafraid to reveal a big heart behind the businesslike demeanor. In his role as Patrick, the king’s advisor, Tavis L. Baker does double duty as loyal court confidant and eventual facilitator of a better vision of governance, thriving on some of Kouyoumdjian’s most exhilarating punch lines. Finally, the performance of Jade Hykush, as the venerable queen, gives “Happy Armenians” much of its spiritual anchoring. Exuding the aching elegance of hard-earned conviction, Hykush’s queen grips the audience whether dispensing jibes of biting skepticism or words of wisdom, in effect amplifying and often setting the tone for the play’s various dramatic arcs.
At a crisp 90 minutes, “Happy Armenians” achieves considerable atmospherics, with an exquisite interplay of color and sound. Credit for this goes to a crew of accomplished talents, including music composer Ara Dabandjian, technical director and lighting designer Henrik Mansourian, set and costume designer Maro Parian, costume designer Maria Aristakesyan, and production stage manager Armineh Hovanesian.
“Happy Armenians” is performed at the NoHo Arts Center in North Hollywood on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through October 25. Click for schedule and tickets.