BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
After a sleepy summer, Armenian theater greeted the fall with fervor, as four different productions succeeded one another within a five-week frame. The most recent entries were light-hearted fare. “Love & Marriage” featured a trio of one-acts adapted and directed by Aramazd Stepanian; being away from the Southland, I missed its single-weekend engagement. “Look Me in the Eye” was Vahik Pirhamzei’s latest (and, by now, formulaic) piece about marital discord, although it boasted, as usual, a healthy sprinkling of sharp one-liners that delighted his audiences and strong acting by a seasoned ensemble.
Yet, the notable theatrical events of the fall were not the comedies; rather, they were two surprising entries – a Genocide musical by Emmy Award-winning composer Denise Gentilini and the debut of the Hamazkayin Theater Company with an original children’s play.
Musicals as an Armenian art form are as common as four-leaf clovers, making Gentilini’s “I Am Alive” – which tells the story of her grandparents, Kourken and Malvine, both survivors of the Genocide – quite an exceptional achievement. After its world premiere in Colorado, the groundbreaking work was performed at the Alex Theatre in Glendale by its original cast, delivering the sort of high-caliber production values often missing in Armenian-themed theater.
Gentilini’s musical starts off as an Armenian riff on “Fiddler on the Roof,” depicting village life in Yerzinga and Manisa before those communities (and countless others) were decimated by deportations and massacres that began in 1915. The opening number, “We Are Blessed,” is a straightforward but moving piece that showcases the cast’s vocal talents from the outset. We are then introduced to Kourken and Malvine, pre-teens from reputable families (Kourken’s father is the local chief of police.) Both families are virtually annihilated, however, as Armenians are forcibly displaced from their ancestral lands and systematically killed. Malvine is saved when her mother entrusts her care to a sympathetic neighbor, while the intervention of a compassionate Turkish commandant spares Kourken from death.
The plot traces Kourken and Malvine’s experiences during the Genocide and its aftermath, as they find love amidst devastation, flee to the safety of Europe (and subsequently the United States), but remain scarred by the tragedy of their past.
Collaboratively written by Gentilini and Lisa Nemzo, the musical’s book and lyrics follow a strong trajectory, although in its latter parts, “I Am Alive” becomes overly sentimental, perhaps more revelatory for non-Armenian audiences less familiar with the Genocide than for Armenian ones. The compositions and orchestrations by Gentilini are impressive throughout – only a couple of transitions come across stilted – alternately evoking tension, pathos, and hope.
Performed against a backdrop of projections – mostly well-placed but occasionally overwrought (flames and all-too-literal red imagery), the California premiere of “I Am Alive” featured thoughtful staging by director Christy Montour-Larson, who handled the show’s inherent challenges well. The mass killings, always difficult to pull off on stage, were effectively visualized as tableaux vivants featuring background figures draped in shroud-like swaths of cloth, enhanced with cadenced choreography and rhythmic recitation. Equally effective was Montour-Larson’s choice to have cast members on stage throughout the performance, seated on church pews and watching scenes they were not in – witnesses to tragedy in the classical Greek tradition.
A large, multi-ethnic ensemble delivered strong performances, both in terms of acting and singing, although the musical’s vocal demands sometimes proved too much for the abilities of its younger cast members. Transferring the production intact to another state was undoubtedly a mammoth undertaking, and lackluster attendance probably did not help the show recoup its considerable costs. Too bad – the experience was a most worthy one.
For the past several years, the Hamazkayin Educational & Cultural Society has been intent on starting a theater company. It took a while for the organization’s vision to crystallize, but it wisely settled on young people’s theater. Now, thanks to the dedicated efforts of a core group led by Nargiz Muriyan, the Hamazkayin Theatre Company has arrived with its maiden production, “Dzaghgamani Kaghdnikuh” (The Secret of the Flower Pot).
The production played several daytime performances for students from Armenian schools and two additional shows for the general public on a Saturday.
Ever since it started hosting visits from the Sos Sargsyan State Theater Company in 2013, Hamazkayin has championed the model of bussing in students to watch Armenian-language productions catering to their age group. This practice leaves me conflicted. On the one hand, I applaud that it provides Armenian youth with much-needed exposure to theater. On the other hand, I worry that young Armenians who are passively taken to the theater will not learn to actively go to the theater.
We can leave that debate for another day. The news to celebrate here is the formation of the new ensemble and its debut with a production that did not have to be imported from Armenia but was actualized by local talents.
“The Secret of the Flower Pot” unfolds in the royal realm of a King who is facing imminent death. Several suitors are vying for his daughter’s hand in marriage in order to become his successor (presumably because misogynistic laws prohibit the daughter from ruling the land herself). Unimpressed with them all, the King asks Death for more time to find a worthy heir – never mind that he has grown to old age without bothering to do so earlier.
Given another year to live, the King challenges the young men of his realm to grow the most beautiful flower possible using only the seeds he gives them. Among the contenders are rich and poor alike, including the King’s vain First Minister; the nitwit son of his Second Minister; and Tigran, a gardener of humble means, who sets out for the enchanted garden to collect its magical soil. Along the way, he encounters a number of adventures, culminating in his battle with the dragon that has made the garden its lair.
The production had much to recommend it: an original script in Armenian with an engaging enough plot and lessons about integrity and bravery; a rich infusion of music (some newly composed, some repurposed) by Ara Dabandjian; and puppets of all sorts designed by Darcie Crager – hand puppets, life-sized puppets, and shadow puppets that wonderfully indulged the imagination. A generous amount of physical comedy that director Vaneh Assadourian had injected into the staging often had the youngest members of the audience in stitches.
At the same time, the production suffered a number of shortcomings. Well-crafted performances by Maral Nashalian Arsenian and Nayeri Harboyan Moumdjian notwithstanding, the acting was often hesitant, and the cast seemed under-rehearsed, while Assadourian’s direction turned tepid at times, particularly during scene transitions. Matters were not helped by a late start and Hamazkayin’s long-outmoded insistence on pre-performance speeches on behalf of its Regional Executive.
For a first step, “The Secret of the Flower Pot” was an auspicious one for the new company. It is now up to Hamazkayin to build on this initial foray to ensure the troupe’s long-term viability and growth.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His forthcoming play is “Kabaré.”