Critics’ Forum: Aram Kouyoumdjian’s Ode to the Gods of Cultural Renewal

Saroyan Performance 2 (Religion) (1)a
Robert Walters, Will Maizel, Bailey Sorrel, and Jade Hykush in "William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance." (Photo by Armineh Hovanesian)

Robert Walters, Will Maizel, Bailey Sorrel, and Jade Hykush in “William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance.” (Photo by Armineh Hovanesian)

BY ISHKHAN JINBASHIAN

If only there were two more like Aram Kouyoumdjian. Just two more working in Los Angeles, so that the theater of the largest Armenian community outside Armenia could, conceivably, have a whole lot more to show for than rehashes of moldy continental comedies or newly-written melodramas meant to serve up light entertainment, therefore designed to provoke as little thought as possible. Not that it’s easy to produce such plays, any play, given the dearth of institutional funding and proper infrastructures. Undoubtedly, there is an impulse for theater which endures, rather obstinately, in the psyche of Armenian Los Angeles, but the unspoken mantra of the precious few who are still plying the craft these days seems to be, “minimum creative risk, maximum public acceptance.” Yet this still begs the question: Is it really all by design? Or is it the case that there is no artistic and intellectual voltage out there, among practitioners of Armenian theater, sufficient enough to speak of a gamut of creative choices?

Aram Kouyoumdjian is pretty much the antithesis of the aforementioned mantra. He has been writing and directing plays that go against the grain by being thought-provoking and entertaining in equal measure, while consistently shining in terms of originality, performance, and production values. And he has been at it not because he has to, or there’s a wealthy organization giving him a blank check, but because, quite simply, he needs to do it. Write the stuff, envision the production, then go ahead and knock on some doors to see if anyone would help sponsor the work. You’d be surprised by people’s willingness to lend their support to the staging of a fresh, engaging, daring play.

Will Maizel and Robert Walters in a scene from "Home to Hayastan." (Photo by Armineh Hovanesian)

Will Maizel and Robert Walters in a scene from “Home to Hayastan.” (Photo by Armineh Hovanesian)

You’d also be surprised by the Armenian public’s veritable hunger for great theater. No, you don’t necessarily need ghastly slapstick or gung-ho patriotism to draw the audiences. And yes, it’s very much possible to take on weighty, relevant collective issues in a dramatic work without being stuck in the morass of stereotype and sermon. On September 15, when the world premiere of Kouyoumdjian’s latest offering, William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance, was about to start at the Los Angeles Central Library’s Mark Taper Auditorium, with every seat occupied and patio seating sensibly made available to accommodate the late-arriving droves of theatergoers, you had the evening’s first reason to feel a visceral thrill – in this instance, one that had to do with the realization of sharing a certain cultural wavelength with so many.

In terms of architectonics, Kouyoumdjian’s newest work is a model of multifunctionality and efficiency of organizing principles. In conceiving it, Kouyoumdjian had the challenge of distilling several unpublished Saroyan plays – including The Armenian Play (or Opera), Home to Hayastan, and Ouzenk Chouzenk Hai Yenk – into a cogent, cohesive, complete play that could stand on its own. Next, he had to select from those works passages that both conveyed the timeless wisdom of Saroyan and showcased “new” material that would add to our understanding and appreciation of the author. As importantly, and perhaps this is the kicker, Kouyoumdjian had sought to say a thing or two about, oh, matters such as dealing with collective and personal loss, dislocation, and racism; and, by extension, the audacity to imagine a reinvented cultural identity, a renewal of spirit and outlook, all parsed and sumptuously illuminated by Saroyan’s own words.

It took no more than ten minutes into the play to gather that Kouyoumdjian had fully risen to these challenges. In doing so, he had created a work that not only feasted on hitherto-uncharted swaths of the immersive power and unvarnished beauty of Saroyan’s world, but brimmed with downright addictive fun. Here, Kouyoumdjian used humor for all it’s worth, as he had done in his wonderful Happy Armenians. Like Saroyan himself, he was employing unpretentious, down-home humor for its genuinely transformative purpose: not as an instrument for getting laughs per se, but, ultimately, an experiential guide that would help us make sense of, and, ideally, transcend the dour side of life.

Will Maizel, Robert Walters, Jade Hykush, and Baily Sorrel in a scene from "The Armenian Play (or Opera)"

Will Maizel, Robert Walters, Jade Hykush, and Baily Sorrel in a scene from “The Armenian Play (or Opera)”

The four actors who make up the Vista Players – Jade Hykush, Will Maizel, Bailey Sorrel, and Robert Walters – were required to wear several hats. They took turns to act as narrators setting various scenes, providing brief descriptions of the works involved, or shedding light on the real-world backdrops against which they were written. As remarkably, the actors were entrusted with the task of portraying a total of close to 30 characters, including Saroyan himself. The female actors often took on male roles too, while transitions between scenes were marked by quick changes of shirts, right there on the stage. It was all equally serious, reverential, and unapologetically light-hearted, even and specially when tackling critical core themes – starting with the Genocide and down to the nasty strains of prejudice which Fresno’s Armenians had to face for generations.

The four cast members dove into the material with gusto, laser-sharp precision, and a level of suppleness that spells the difference between mere technical prowess and the sublime. The result on the night of September 15 was a drop-dead-gorgeous tapestry of storytelling and reflection, simultaneously panoramic and fluid, with the multitude of scenes not so much following but rather gliding and merging into one another, and also complementing and echoing certain themes.

By the close of the 75-minute performance, one had the impression of having gained fresh insight into the entirety of Saroyan’s life and works, and not just the unpublished plays that were being presented to the public for the first time. As for the instant love affair that had ignited between the Vista Players and the audience, its afterglow will linger for quite some time. After the performance, as I was dreamily leaving the Los Angeles Central Library building, I knew, once more, that I’d want to see these actors on stage no matter what they were to play next. They could recite a Buick owner’s manual for all I cared.

 

Ishkhan Jinbashian is an author and literary translator. He lives in Los Angeles. You can reach him or any of the other contributors to Critics’ Forum at comments@criticsforum.org. This and all other articles published in this series are available online at www.criticsforum.org. To sign up for an electronic version of new articles, go to www.criticsforum.org/join. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.

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