Theater Review: ‘Chigareli’ Marks Hamazkayin’s Second Foray Into Innovative Children’s Theater

From l to r: Hagop Dabbaghian, Maral Nashalian Arsenian, and Kevork Manoukian in "The Adventures of Chigareli"
From l to r: Hagop Dabbaghian, Maral Nashalian Arsenian, and Kevork Manoukian in "The Adventures of Chigareli"

From l to r: Hagop Dabbaghian, Maral Nashalian Arsenian, and Kevork Manoukian in “The Adventures of Chigareli”

BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN

Three years ago, the Hamazkayin Theatre Company, which was then newly formed, staged “Dzaghgamani Kaghdnikuh” (The Secret of the Flower Pot) as its inaugural production. Catering to younger audiences and featuring puppetry alongside live performances, “Flower Pot” was not a flawless production, but a promising one, and it suggested that Hamazkayin was intent on filling a void in the realm of innovative children’s theater.

It took the company a while to build on its initial promise, but its latest offering, “Chigareliyi Argadzneruh” (The Adventures of Chigareli), written by Rouben Maroukhyan and directed by Gohar Karapetyan (with Grigori Hakobyan), was an ambitious step up. Despite its occasional stumbles, “Chigareli,” which played last week at the Colony Theatre in Burbank, proved to be a visually engaging and frequently entertaining piece that was chock-full of earnest moralizing.

“Chigareli” is the nickname of the play’s protagonist, a young boy named Mushegh, whose body has mutated as a result of his bad behavior – particularly his mistreatment of the environment. With overgrown ears, an elongated nose, and a hunchback, he no longer looks like a “normal” boy. In order to regain his former features, he must travel to a special fountain hidden within a forest and seek Nature’s forgiveness.

Mushegh’s journey makes up the bulk of the plot, as he encounters, through various scenes, characters engaged in all sorts of problematic conduct, from unhealthy habits (smoking) to deadly sins (sloth). He first meets a shopkeeper who demands exorbitant prices for the raggedy clothes he’s selling while practically giving away quality goods. Mushegh learns his first lesson here about distorted values.

He next comes across a miserly woman who hoards jewels and other riches, but won’t put any of them to use, even as she is disheveled and starving; she is beholden to her acquisitions and wants more. The second lesson is about materialism and greed; ensuing scenes also cover lies, theft, and pollution.

That the script transcends Armenocentric themes for universal ones (especially the environment – so timely) was refreshing. Scenes were zippy, especially when punctuated with music that further enlivened the action. The production was actually quite rich in both sight and sound. The set featured an oversized backdrop, and the costumes were colorful and festive and wonderfully wacky. (Kudos to scenic and costume designer Lucia Manoukyan.)

Upon closer scrutiny, the script didn’t always hold up. For instance, it regarded looking different – being the Other – as an abnormality; and, at times, it simply reduced responsible citizenship to obedience.

Still, the production made for an enjoyable hour (plus not-so-enjoyable 25 minutes for a late start), thanks to a charming cast, featuring both seasoned performers and beginners. The imbalance was particularly noticeable in the production’s more demanding scenes and its closing number, since certain cast members seemed intimidated by the choreography and were clearly unfamiliar with the lyrics.

Fortunately, in the leading role, Kevork Manoukian was first-rate as Chigareli, lending the character a clownish walk and an eccentric, energetic disposition. Shahe Harboyan, donning a wig and groovy clothes, provided strong support as a sinister smoker, while Maral Nashalian Arsenian delivered one of her best performances to date as the miserly woman, relishing the character’s witchy appearance and reveling in her every word and gesture.

The production had six daytime performances for students from Armenian schools (as well as Jefferson Elementary in Glendale) before playing three shows for the public at large. Through this model, Hamazkayin is seeking to cultivate the new generation of Armenian theatergoers. “Chigareli” was another significant step forward in that direction.

Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His next production, “Constantinople,” is slated to have its world premiere this fall.

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