Theatre Review: Safe Path For ‘Perils’

Perils of Politeness, Act II (Medium)

A scene from Kamig agha's "adventures" in Act II of "The Perils of Politeness"

Even at its height, the Armenian literary renaissance of the 19th century did not produce many dramatists, but it did beget Hagop Baronian, who remains our best known – if not best – satirist.

Baronian’s milieu was the Bolis – or Constantinople – of the Ottoman Era, and his writing was devoted to skewering the Armenian bourgeoisie that burgeoned there during the decades preceding massacres and genocide.  The bourgeois class had a predilection for a European lifestyle, yet defined its social hierarchy through such Turkish titles as “agha” and “efendi” (for men) and “hanum” (for women).  This haughty, hypocritical society provided the fodder for Baronian’s work, of which “Kaghakavaroutyan Vnasneruh” (The Perils of Politeness) endures as a masterpiece.

Perils of Politeness, Act I (Small)

A scene from Melidos agha's "adventures" in Act I of "The Perils of Politeness"

The Ardavazt Theatre Company, which performed the play nearly 20 years ago, has revived it for a run through December 20 at its eponymous performance hall in Pasadena.  The production generates some hearty laughs and boasts a handful of memorable performances; still, in being authentic to a fault – in costume and custom – it treats the play as a dated period piece, rather than as a mirror to the bourgeois Armenian society of our own place and time.

The first of the production’s two acts chronicles the “adventures” – actually, the trials and tribulations – of Melidos agha.  In the opening scene, Melidos returns home after a long day, only to have unexpected visitors disrupt his hoped-for rest.  His travails continue the following day, when he suffers at the hands of his barber, his haberdasher, and his cobbler, before having to pay a social call at the efendi’s house, where he is ignored by his hosts and tortured by their mischievous son.  Constrained by “etiquette,” however, Melidos is forced to suffer these humiliations in silence.

Though the contemporary relevance of these situations is questionable – who, after all, goes to the barber for a shave nowadays, or patronizes a haberdashery? – they provide comic potential for an Everyman character.  Certain opportunities for laughs are lost, however, by Ardavazt veteran Roupen Harmandayan’s portrayal of Melidos agha as angry, rather than befuddled and overwhelmed.  Indeed, only a few performances in this strained first act strike the right chords, yet director Krikor Satamian steals his scene as a sore loser of a card player, while Narine Avakian makes a riotous cameo as his deliriously classless wife.

The second act fares better, serving up funnier vignettes and several accomplished performances.  Here, the story shifts to Kamig agha, ably played by Alex Khorchidian, who modulates the deer-in-headlights look of his Everyman with quiet grace.  Kamig agha begins his day at the doctor’s office (an amusing and well-paced opening sequence), then is pressed to accept a lunch invitation at his friend Margos agha’s house.  The ensuing scene stands among the highlights of the production, thanks to Sossi Varjabedian’s delightful turn as Margos agha’s wife, Shoushan, who coos Kamig agha’s name in her high-pitched voice and extends him every hospitality – except lunch.

Perils of Politeness Cast (Small)

The cast of "The Perils of Politeness"

A final ordeal awaits Kamig agha at night – a soiree thrown by Noubar efendi’s wife, Khatoun hanum (an elegant Maro Ajemian) to fete her brother, “monsieur” Mihran (played as a dandy, to marvelous effect, by Ari Libaridian), who has newly returned from Paris.  Indeed, the festivities grow complicated when the French-spewing lothario takes an interest in Kamig agha’s wife.  (Narine Avakian returns to play her to the hilt).

Even this successful second act, however, seems stuck in Baronian’s world – its language sounds downright archaic at times – and does not readily reflect westernized diasporan existence of the present day.  In sparing its audience from the bite of its satire, the production fosters a sense of detachment and safety.

Nevertheless, the revival of an Armenian classic is always welcome, and this particular revival was probably overdue.  Looked at another way, the timing may be perfect, marking as it does the 30th anniversary of the comedy-loving Ardavazt ensemble.

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