Theater Review: An ‘Encounter’ Gone Awry

Raffi Sarian (left) as Daniel Varoujan and Heibert Sarian as Komitas in "Hantiboum" (Encounter)
Raffi Sarian (left) as Daniel Varoujan and Heibert Sarian as Komitas in "Hantiboum" (Encounter)

Raffi Sarian (left) as Daniel Varoujan and Heibert Sarian as Komitas in “Hantiboum” (Encounter)

BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN

The production: “Hantiboum” (Encounter), billed as “a play in three acts.”

The playwright: uncredited (a red flag).

The intriguing premise: a meeting – on the eve of the Armenian Genocide – between Daniel Varoujan, the eminent poet, and Komitas, the priest and musicologist whose immense contribution to Armenian culture involved painstakingly collecting, notating, and thereby preserving a vast body of folk songs.

The announced performance time: 6:00 pm on Sunday, April 14.

6:15 pm: The doors to the multi-purpose hall of the Beshir Mardirossian Burbank Youth Center finally open.

6:30 pm: A representative of the producing entity, Homenetmen’s “Sipan” Chapter, makes a brief speech, as I wonder why a play is being staged by an athletics organization.

6:37 pm: The play itself commences – sort of – with a lengthy voiceover recitation, although the makeshift stage remains empty. Full of rhetorical and poetic flourishes, albeit barely comprehensible through the amplification system, the epic recitation drones on for 12 interminable minutes. (“Oh, my Lord,” sighs the exasperated woman behind me at some point.)

6:49 pm: Nearly 50 minutes after the announced time, an actor finally takes the stage – but he does not speak for another full minute.

The actor is portraying Daniel Varoujan, despite appearing considerably older than the 31 years the poet lived before he perished as one of the earliest victims of the Genocide.

After a brief exchange with an elderly lady who has been mothering him during his final days – her few words are the only ones spoken by a woman in the entire play – Varoujan receives a visit from Komitas; as the two men discuss the plight of the Armenians, the dejected priest questions whether there is any point to proceeding with their respective work, but the poet urges him to persist.

While this set-up brims with potential, the actual scene is hampered by over-the-top sentimentality and wan execution. Heibert Sarian portrays Komitas with tormented intensity, but Raffi Sarian, who embodies Varoujan (and doubles as director), is too soft-spoken and mild for the scene to achieve the necessary tension; his comfortable stage presence actually works against him in this context.

Unknown Time: I realize that the incessant whispering I’ve been hearing isn’t coming from a discourteous audience member but from someone in the wings reading along the script in order to feed lines to the actors.

7:10 pm: The first “act” (just a scene, really) is over, and another round of voiceover recitation resumes while a clumsy set change transpires onstage. By adding eight minutes to the earlier 12, the recitation is thus far running as long as the onstage performance.

7:18 pm: The second “act” depicts another encounter – this one between Varoujan and Oguz Bey, a Turkish official. It actually begins with Oguz ordering Varoujan to read his own bio out loud – a rather strained expository tool. Their ensuing debate has Varoujan demanding to know why Armenians are being expelled from the Ottoman Empire and Oguz listing their “faults” and articulating the Ittihadists’ vision of Pan-Turanism.

It’s a standoff that could have been taut and compelling; instead, it sputters in the wake of tepid writing and slack direction, despite Artur Alexanyan’s sinister depiction of Oguz Bey.

7:32 pm: The voiceover recitations resume yet again, but at least the stage isn’t barren, as Oguz Bey hangs back to “read” Varoujan’s writings.

7:34 pm: Oguz Bey departs, so the stage is barren after all, yet the voiceover recitations prove unyielding, their overwrought tone magnified by the swells of accompanying musical excerpts.

7:40 pm: The wordless third “act,” clocking in at four minutes, is essentially a tableau of two women collapsing during the death marches of the Genocide, as Komitas wails over them. Subsequently, he helps them stand back up and exit, although it’s not altogether clear whether the three of them are still in character (that is, embarking on the rest of their torturous journey) or whether they are merely vacating the stage for the curtain call.

7:44 pm: Applause. Almost everyone in the audience joins in. A few decidedly don’t. A few others rise from their seats for a standing ovation.

__________

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

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