Theater Review: Hamazkayin Theater Company in Sophomore Slump with ‘Groonge’ Revival

Nan Groong1
Aren Aghamanoukian as Steve Jackson and Stepan Boyajian as Marc Jackson in "Groonge Ge Ganche"

Aren Aghamanoukian as Steve Jackson and Stepan Boyajian as Marc Jackson in “Groonge Ge Ganche”

BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN

Last year, the newly-formed Hamazkayin Theater Company made its auspicious debut with “The Secret of the Flower Pot,” an original play for young audiences. The production was flawed, to be sure, but it was creative, its staging rich with music and puppetry, and it held great promise, signaling the start-up of a youth-oriented ensemble.

With its sophomore outing, the troupe has taken a puzzling 180-degree turn. Its revival of Jacques S. Hagopian’s “Groonge Ge Ganche” (The Crane Beckons) – which had its final performance on November 12 at the Agajanian Auditorium of the AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian School – comes across as an amateurish rendition of a dated and overly sentimental drama about Armenian identity in the diaspora.
Strangely, the company admits as much. A pre-show announcement insists that Hagopian’s script, written in the 1970s, remains relevant today, despite seismic shifts that the Armenian nation has experienced during the past four decades. It then proceeds to forewarn the audience that the production’s cast and director have “absolutely no experience in theater.” Perhaps such a disclaimer would be cute if it preceded a student showcase; given that this particular production is charging up to $50 a ticket, I’m not sure whether it’s more insulting or embarrassing.

Tsolak Khatcherian as Kevork Ardzrouni, Hrag Khatcherian as his grandson Vahanig, and Zovinar Apikian-Mikaelian as his wife Srpoug in "Groonge Ge Ganche"

Tsolak Khatcherian as Kevork Ardzrouni, Hrag Khatcherian as his grandson Vahanig, and Zovinar Apikian-Mikaelian as his wife Srpoug in “Groonge Ge Ganche”

Alas, the warning proves to be all-too-necessary, as the production misfires on a number of levels: its venue is inhospitable, its cast (as mentioned) comprised of novices, and its production values marred by poorly calibrated sound cues and bizarre lighting effects (such as a spotlight swirling across the stage to indicate scene changes). Underlying these problems is a script laden with dialogue so ornate and nationalism so pronounced that on occasion it borders on parody.

The play unfolds in Australia – the year of the action is 1947 – and revolves around two Armenian men who have shaped their diasporan lives (and those of their families) in drastically different ways. Kevork Ardzrouni is obsessed with preserving “Armenianness” through language and culture, while Marc Jackson represses his ethnicity and seeks to raise his sons as Australians.

Stepan Boyajian as Marc Jackson and Nayeri Harboyan-Moumdjian as his wife Miriam in "Groonge Ge Ganche"

Stepan Boyajian as Marc Jackson and Nayeri Harboyan-Moumdjian as his wife Miriam in “Groonge Ge Ganche”

Jackson’s rejection of his roots stems from the fact that the book of Armenian poetry he published in his youth was met with community apathy. In reaction, he has pushed his son Steve, also a poet, to compose in English on his way to gaining fame as one of Australia’s premier writers of verse.

The thematic questions that underlie the plot – what is Armenian consciousness and can it exist in the absence of the Armenian language? – prove gripping at times, particularly as Steve begins to question his origins, triggering a father-son conflict. Unfortunately, the script is fixated on romanticizing and idealizing every aspect of Armenia and Armenian existence. There is so much facile sloganeering that “Groonge” seems at times to be a patriotic speech masquerading as a play. (The audience applauds the jingoistic lines on cue.)

Over the course of the past four decades, the play has lost much of the context that probably made it an impactful piece of theater when it was first written and performed. Although the preservation of Armenian language and identity remains a critical diasporan concern, recent geopolitics have reshaped the discourse around it. Our homeland is now independent, so it sounds silly to pine for Armenia as an unattainable place when one can simply move there (but won’t) – or at least visit with regularity. Similarly, our notions of diaspora have evolved. The diaspora no longer connotes a patchwork of exile and assimilation but rather a global Armenian network – a “transnation,” some academics would call it – that supports Armenia politically and economically by promoting Armenian causes and culture around the world.

An experienced ensemble may have overcome the script’s flaws by playing against its sappier tendencies. But under Tsolak Khatcherian’s direction, the cast leans into them, with several unseasoned performers – some of them in key roles – substituting emotive recitation for acting. Khatcherian and Stepan Boyajian, who portray Ardzrouni and Jackson, respectively, demonstrate a surprisingly comfortable stage presence for first-timers but are unable to sufficiently layer their portrayals of these one-dimensional characters. Several of the performers are decades younger than the characters they portray, lending “Groonge” the feel of a high-school production, and the male-dominated play relegates actresses to thankless roles as wives (or wives-to-be).

Hagopian, who turned 100 this year, was in attendance at last Sunday night’s performance, beaming to see his work attain new life, so it pains me to write so critically of this effort, since I fully comprehend the amount of work and sacrifice it takes to stage an Armenian-language play. However, our community cannot continue applauding “effort” in place of productions that strive for professional caliber. If our theater artists – and their sponsoring organizations – are truly devoted to their craft, they will commit to honing that craft, rather than offering inexperience as an excuse for subpar work. Why we don’t have experienced actors/actresses and directors in the first place – or newly written Armenian plays, for that matter – is the existential question that Hamazkayin should be asking itself.

Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). The world premiere of his next play, “49 States,” is slated for 2018.

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