Theater Review: ‘Sentimental’ Plays Trigger Mixed Emotions

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Maral Varjabedian as Mrs. Yebrakseh and Kevork Habeshian as Norayr in "Bjegh Muh Anoush Sird" (A Bit of a Kind Heart)

Maral Varjabedian as Mrs. Yebrakseh and Kevork Habeshian as Norayr in “Bjegh Muh Anoush Sird” (A Bit of a Kind Heart)

BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN

This spring, the Armenian Theater Company has been mounting productions in rapid succession. On the heels of “Oppression,” a trio of one-acts by Harold Pinter presented last month to mark the anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the company is staging “Two Sentimental Plays” in May, to be followed by Kariné Khodikian’s “The Day Continues Still” next month.

All this activity is quite exciting, especially since the material being presented is eclectic, but these efforts are proving both under-resourced and under-rehearsed, delivering productions that are rather half-baked.

Of the two “sentimental” plays currently running, the first – “Ankhrov Hrazhesht” (A Tranquil Farewell) or “Mobli Taki Biskueete” (The Cookie Under the Settee) – is an original piece by Aramazd Stepanian, who doubles as director. Its central character is Mrs. Hripsime, an octogenarian widow contending with loneliness and the fear of being relegated to an old age home. Having seen her husband, her siblings, and her friends die, Mrs. Hripsime is herself ready to bid adieu to this life, especially on a day when she has fallen and, with no one around, is left to fend for herself.

Janet Voskanian as Mrs. Hripsime in "Ankhrov Hrazhesht" (A Tranquil Farewell)

Janet Voskanian as Mrs. Hripsime in “Ankhrov Hrazhesht” (A Tranquil Farewell)

Mrs. Hripsime lives on her own, aided by a caretaker and cleaning lady. Obsessed with cleanliness, Mrs. Hripsime is perhaps less bothered by her fall than by the sight of a cookie that has rolled beneath a settee: evidence of the cleaning lady’s inadequacy! (In an inspired bit, Mrs. Hripsime vows that if she were to die right there and then, she would do so with her index finger accusingly pointed at the cookie.)

The premise of an elderly person, fatigued by isolation, preparing for death is a poignant one, but Stepanian’s script gives it superficial treatment, succumbing to facile exposition and even cliché. Indeed, the script can’t seem to decide whether Mrs. Hripsime’s story is a nostalgic musing about her life or whether it’s a bit of fluff about housekeeping.

Janet Voskanian’s performance as Mrs. Hripsime is often strong, but her emotional shifts do not always resonate as organic. Her struggles with lines threw off her rhythm more than once at the performance I saw.

Stepanian bookends the play with a pair of songs skillfully performed by Marita Abrahamyan, who is perhaps meant to personify an angel orbiting over Mrs. Hripsime; the songs’ relevance to the piece otherwise remains elusive.

Ditto for the three Charles Aznavour songs performed – again, skillfully, though this time by Armen Genjyan – throughout “Bjegh Muh Anoush Sird” (A Bit of a Kind Heart) by Shahan Shahnour, a renowned diasporan writer of the 20th century.

“Bjegh Muh Anoush Sird,” one of Shahnour’s lesser works, revolves around Mrs. Yebrakseh of Istanbul and her encounter with an Armenian young man, Norayr, at a trolley stop in Paris, where they’ve both been transplanted. Ridiculously enough, Mrs. Yebrakseh is carrying a rug to the home of some friends in order to clean it, given that her neighbors have taken to complaining about her beating the rug outside the window of her apartment.

Norayr is suicidal – a fact unknown to Mrs. Yebrakseh at first – and his melancholy brings out the mother in her. The scene brims with potential, given its setting and context: the French capital in the post-Genocide era, when a generation of orphaned, traumatized young men (referred to, in Armenian, as “Parisi dghakuh”) tried to make their way in a place foreign to them. However, the production glosses over this underlying tension, favoring broad comedy and melodrama instead. And while it preserves the linguistic traces of Shahnour’s era, the staging is completely anachronistic in other regards, as in the use of key cards, rather than keys, at hotels.

After an intriguing first scene, the play devolves into a mess of a middle section, performed mostly in French, at Norayr’s hotel. In the third and final scene, Mrs. Yebrakseh ends up in Norayr’s room, where an open window affords her the opportunity to . . . beat her rug clean. Against the backdrop of Norayr’s suicidal tendencies, the dissonance of this awkward plot development cannot be overstated.

Maral Varjabedian, an actress of versatile range, delivers an energetic performance as Mrs. Yebrakseh, even during moments when restraint would be a more impactful alternative; in the absence of nuanced shading, the character sometimes verges on caricature. Kevork Habeshian’s portrayal of Norayr as despondent is an understandable choice, given the young man’s state of mind, but the one-note performance is missing the glimmer of hope that Mrs. Yebrakseh’s nurturing would bestow upon him.

The whole piece suffers from a lack of direction, which may be a function of Stepanian trying to wear too many hats in back-to-back productions. ’Tis a pity, since the endeavor – already low on production values (with a makeshift set and bare-bones lighting) – ends up shortchanged and lackluster.

Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His next production, “William Saroyan’s Theater of Diaspora: The Unpublished Plays in Performance,” is slated to have its world premiere this fall.

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