Theatre Review: Contrasting Styles on Display as Satamian Group, Armenian Theater Company Stage New Productions

From l to r: Aram Muradian, Arpi Samuelian, and Narine Avakian in Satamian Group's "Hotel Paradiso"
From l to r: Aram Muradian, Arpi Samuelian, and Narine Avakian in Satamian Group's "Hotel Paradiso"

From l to r: Aram Muradian, Arpi Samuelian, and Narine Avakian in Satamian Group’s “Hotel Paradiso”

BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN

Two vastly different Armenian-language plays (one in translation) arrived during the month of June, courtesy of the AGBU Satamian Theatre Group and the Armenian Theater Company.

Satamian Group’s offering was “Paradiso Bantoguh” – “Hotel Paradiso” or “L’Hôtel du libre échange” in the French original by Georges Feydeau and Maurice Desvallières—an all-too-obvious choice for an ensemble that is steadily devoted to farce. At least this production fared better than the Ray Cooney atrocities the company has been force-feeding us of late. (Notably, it’s been five years since the troupe last served up an Armenian original.)

“Hotel Paradiso” marks the Satamian Group’s umpteenth production about unfaithful spouses, and it starts unfolding when an architect named Boniface schedules a tryst with his best friend’s wife, Marcelle. They end up at the less-than-reputable hotel of the play’s title and, through a series of coincidences, so does everyone else, including Marcelle’s husband, who is investigating paranormal activity in one of the guest rooms. The rest is all madcap activity—running around, hiding, and giving out false names—that crescendoes with a police raid.

The overlong play takes a while to get going (the first act is a slog), peaks in the middle, then settles down for a so-so third act. Krikor Satamian’s translation is stilted (as usual), but the production is helped by its cast and their willingness to shed their typical puritanism and engage in mild sexual innuendo—the emphasis being on “mild.” (Watch out, 20th century, the company may finally be casting off its 19th century cloak and marching, oh-so-cautiously, toward you.)

Among the accomplished performers fueling the production: Aram Muradian, displaying the full force of his comic prowess, especially through his inebriated proclivities as Boniface and his sinister efforts to cover up his behavior by turning the accusations of adultery against his wife; Peter Nishan, quickly becoming a virtuoso of physical comedy; Artur Margaryan, marking his second impressive turn with the company; Viken Balabanian, a veteran ensemble member delivering one of his best performances as a creepy hotel receptionist; and, as the two wives caught up in the shenanigans, Narine Avakian and Arpi Samuelian, skilled actresses both.

Much is demanded of Manoug Satamian’s set, which has two facades and undergoes a complete transformation from Boniface’s home to the Hotel Paradiso, but the homegrown construction looks out of place against the sleek design of the new Manoukian Performing Arts Center in Pasadena, as the company struggles to adjust to its new venue.

From l to r: Norvart Avanesian, Aris Baghoomian, and Janet Voskanian in "Kna Meri Ari Sirem"

From l to r: Norvart Avanesian, Aris Baghoomian, and Janet Voskanian in “Kna Meri Ari Sirem”

Over in the NoHo Arts District, the Armenian Theater Company revived an altogether dissimilar sort of play: Aramashot Papayan’s “Kna Meri Ari Sirem” (Go Die—and Then I’ll Love You), a dramedy about growing old, and the family obligations triggered by aging.

Set in Yerevan during the 1970s, the play centers around 70-year-old Taron, a lonely widower who pretends to fall ill—the victim of a stroke—so that he can move in with one of his children. Taron’s sons, both married with children of their own, lead busy lives, so dad ends up in a hospital instead, from which he escapes, only to become dependent on the goodwill and care of his neighbor Sofig, her son Davit, and Davit’s wife. They seem more concerned with Taron’s well-being than his self-involved sons and daughters-in-law do.

With a charming premise and a healthy smattering of humor, the play could have made for an engaging 75-minute one-act, but it ends up too long by half and turns plodding. Some of the problem lies with the unrelenting earnestness of the writing, which leaves little room for nuance. The characters are one-dimensional (either inattentive and unavailable, like Taron’s children, or devoted and selfless, like his neighbors), and the production, as directed by Aramazd Stepanian, leans into these reductive depictions, rather than shading them with complexity—asking, for instance, how familial obligations should be balanced against the demands of the modern age, especially by middle generations tasked with simultaneously having to care for both children and parents.

Nor is everyone in the cast up to the task of portraying complex characters; a few are visibly lacking in stage experience. Fortunately, the production has two charismatic leads: Aris Baghoomian makes Taron both affable and sympathetic, while Janet Voskanian is delightfully acerbic as his octogenarian neighbor. “Don’t let what I’m about to say upset you,” she says to one of Taron’s daughters-in-law at some point, “but you’re lazy. Lazy.”

Given the rarity of Armenian-language productions that deal with the challenges and struggles of daily life, I’d take Stepanian’s flawed but thought-provoking production over the Satamian Group’s trite outings any day and twice on Sunday.

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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