Who says you need a theater in order to stage a play? Arena Productions certainly didn’t need one for its excellent rendition of Gourgen Khanjian’s “Averagneri Bahagneruh” (The Guards of Ruins). The determined troupe, under the direction of Anahid Aramouni Keshishian, simply pitched a platform and scenic backdrop on the grounds of an adult day care center for an open-air presentation of the Armenian-language play that ended its three-weekend run last night.
Keshishian had opted for an environmental staging of the existentialist play, which revolves around a cluster of downtrodden characters inhabiting a dilapidated structure. Sirag, Louso, and Matsag are three unrelated souls who find shelter and friendship amidst the “ruins,” surviving on whatever money they can scrape together by begging on the streets.
Khanjian’s squalid characters are reminiscent of the societal outcasts assembled in a cave-like cellar in Maxim Gorky’s “The Lower Depths” and of the squatters who populate an abandoned theater in William Saroyan’s “The Cave Dwellers.” The reasons that Khanjian’s fringe figures have fallen into misfortune, however, are historical, harking back to the devastating earthquake that rocked Armenia’s north in 1988 and the economic devastation that the nation suffered during the ensuing decade while it endured a crippling blockade of its borders.
Gorky’s social realism and Saroyan’s penchant for whimsy and absurdism combine in “The Guards of Ruins,” but the play also shares thematic elements with “Waiting for Godot.” In that existential masterpiece by Samuel Beckett, two tramps while away the hours waiting for the titular Godot, who never appears. Khanjian’s characters, including the tramp-like Sirag, are not waiting for anyone, yet a titular Guard shows up anyway, though no one knows why. Sadistically inclined, the Guard immediately begins barking orders and forcing his subjects to perform humiliating tasks, like throwing themselves on the ground and crawling in order to avoid imaginary explosives. Of course, audiences familiar with “Godot” have seen a similar power dynamic unfold between the slavish Lucky and his master, Pozzo.
The playwright satirizes the futility of a power struggle over ruins, suggesting that the true struggle of life is life itself – the effort to survive, to keep one’s dignity intact, and to find momentary fulfillment in acts as mundane as taking a drag from a cigarette or sharing a piece of bread with a fellow human being.
If all this sounds oppressively heavy, it’s not. Khanjian’s script is suffused with dark, absurdist humor, which director Keshishian was able to mine with great skill. She struck a perfect tonal balance, ensuring that the play’s situations were funny, not laughable, and its characters sympathetic, not pathetic.
Talent ran deep in Keshishian’s cast, synergizing the flawless performances of Artyom Yeghiazaryan as an elastic Sirag; Anoush Arakelyan as a weary Louso; and Aram Mouradyan as an endearing Matsag. Ashot Tadevosyan was in fine form as the Guard.
In the process of staging “Ruins,” the members of the Arena ensemble turned into guards of their own – guards protecting the treasures of Armenian dramatic literature by giving one of its gems a worthy production.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is “Velvet Revolution.”