BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
Christmas came early this year for aficionados of Armenian-language theater, who were treated to three – count ’em, three – such productions within the span of six weeks. So rare is such bounty that it is worthy of celebration – or lament, depending on whether one focuses on the bounty or its rarity.
All three plays were comedic in construct and happened to deal with themes of love and marriage, although the productions themselves varied greatly in caliber of writing, direction, and performance.
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By far the most accomplished of the three was “Indz Hokepan Bedk (Ch)E” (I (Don’t) Need a Psychologist). Despite its off-putting title and venue – a banquet hall at the Verdugo Hills Country Club with satin-covered seats, natch – “Hokepan” skillfully Armenianized romantic comedy, thanks to a breezy, yet sharply funny script, and the expert performances of its two leads.
The play had a simple enough premise: A vapid and materialistic woman named Tina sweeps into a psychologist’s office, where she meets a man named Michael and begins to unveil her troubles. Michael is not actually the psychologist, but his encounter with Tina turns into a therapy session of sorts for the both of them, as they talk about … well, everything – including their spouses – even as their rapid-fire dialogue pulsates with “will-they-or-won’t-they” tension.
Although it featured four characters, “Hokepan” was essentially a vehicle to showcase the considerable talents of Vahik Pirhamzei – who performed triple duty as actor, co-writer, and director – and Anahid Avanesian, his real-life wife. Over the course of 90 animated minutes, they displayed obvious chemistry, along with a keen understanding of comic timing and delivery.
The script by Pirhamzei and Hakob Rubinyan remains in need of tightening and can benefit from touch-ups to its plot – particularly an 11th-hour twist straight out of “The Sixth Sense,” which was discarded as quickly as it was introduced. The fresh, edgy humor that ran through the writing, however, easily allowed this viewer to forgive – but not forget – such structural problems.
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There was far less to recommend the production of “Hai Ellar, Cher Ellar?” (Couldn’t He Have Been Armenian?), staged by the Levon Shant Theater Company of the Hamazkayin Educational and Cultural Society’s Pasadena chapter.
Incredibly, none of the promotional materials for the production identified the play’s author, and there was no playbill – not even a makeshift leaflet. Such were the low production values, which extended to blatant lighting and sound miscues. Technical glitches, however, paled next to the play’s bigger flaws – a haphazard script, outmoded direction, and over-the-top performances.
“Hai Ellar” tries to create a farcical situation around a young Armenian woman’s frantic efforts to keep her marriage to an “odar” (a non-Armenian) secret from her visiting parents. The parents’ visit is unexpected because the e-mail they sent in advance took days to arrive; perhaps it was being transported from one computer portal to another by horse and buggy. This insultingly contrived set-up runs out of steam long before the first act is over, and the second act all but abandons it, instead picking up on a side story about yet another secret love affair.
With funny lines in short supply, director Zohrab Yacoubian apparently felt he had to overcompensate by eliciting exaggerated performances from his cast. Several of his performers, however, exhibited a flair for comedy, and both they and their audience would have been better served by a subtler, more restrained approach.
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Similar problems hampered “Harsaniken Arach” (Before the Wedding), the maiden production of the newly-formed William Saroyan Theatrical Group of Hamazkayin’s Valley chapter.
Kevork Bedikian adapted his new script from one of his short stories about an older Armenian couple intent on being invited to a certain wedding. So thin is the play’s plot, though, that even the 75-minute combined running time of its two acts seems a stretch. (In fact, the 20-minute delay in start time and a 30-minute intermission were nearly as long as the acts themselves). Too often, opportunities to mine genuine humor were sacrificed for easy jokes about gender stereotypes – hackneyed husbands and shrewish wives – and a dance sequence that concluded the play was practically an afterthought.
Virtually all the actors were appearing in a play for the first time – a surprising fact, given how comfortably several of them (especially Maria Kharadjian and Vako Nazar) commanded the stage. So overbroad was Setrak Bronzian’s unfortunate direction, however, that some of the performances verged on the cartoonish.
Hopefully, the spirited and promising novice troupe will build on this initial experience, setting it as the starting benchmark of its journey toward maturity.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is “Velvet Revolution.”