BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
Southland Armenians enjoyed a double dose of East Coast talent last weekend as New York-based dramatist Herand Markarian performed his solo piece “Khrimian Hayrig” at three venues over three nights, while Taleen Babayan, a recent L.A. transplant, mounted a sequel to “Where Is Your Groom?” five years after the original played here.
Markarian’s solemn work about the life of a revered Armenian religious figure and Babayan’s farcical send-up of wedding preparations involving two sets of in-laws offered strikingly different theatrical experiences – both somewhat problematic but each ultimately gratifying for its own distinct reasons.
Markarian performed his Armenian-language work in Orange County, the San Fernando Valley (where I saw it), and Pasadena – all under the auspices of area Hamazkayin Educational & Cultural Society chapters.
“Khrimian Hayrig” had a simple enough framework – the ailing 87-year-old Catholicos speaking to visitors at his pontifical residence and reflecting on his life – and was basically an oral autobiography, recounted chronologically. Khrimian, born in Van, had a relatively unremarkable early life; he was not consecrated as a priest until the age of 34, following the tragic deaths of his wife, child, and mother.
A progressive priest who rankled traditionalists, Khrimian fostered free education and was a fierce proponent of educating women; later, as prelate of the Moush province, he lobbied for relief from oppressive taxes that had impoverished the Armenians of the region. After becoming the Patriarch in Constantinople, he shunned ostentation and championed the Armenian peasantry, which became a source of conflict with the cosmopolitan bigwigs of the capital. At the same time, his nationalism and his efforts on behalf of the Armenian millet created consternation for the sultanate.
Following the Congress of Berlin in 1878, where he led the Armenian delegation seeking reforms in the Ottoman Empire – without success – Khrimian delivered a famous sermon constructed around the metaphor of an iron ladle (‘yergate sherep”). He said that other nations at the Congress had asserted their rights like they were dishing themselves porridge (“harissa”) from a pot with an iron ladle, whereas the ladle that the Armenians were dipping into the pot was made of paper. The sermon was a call to arms, and it further fomented the revolutionary zeal stirring among various segments of the Armenian populace.
To conjure up that Congress, four actors briefly joined Markarian on stage as abstract representations of European powers ignoring the Armenian pleas for help. Tepidly staged, the sequence fell short of its potential, and Markarian’s ensuing depiction of Khrimian’s grief over his failure steered the piece into the realm of sentimentality.
The penchant for sentiment was evident throughout the piece, which was really a hagiography of Khrimian, allowing no room for any character development except for that of a saintly figure. The final scene depicted Khrimian – by now, the Catholicos at Etchmiadzin – resisting tsarist pressure to surrender Armenian land holdings, even as he was surrounded by a circle of children, who ended the play by reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
Despite these occasionally saccharine moments, the text was smartly composed, embracing the vernacular that Khrimian preferred (to be more accessible to his flock) and peppering the densely informative material with well-placed anecdotes – all within the course of an efficient hour (after a 15-minute late start).
Staged without a set or theatrical lighting, “Khrimian Hayrig” rested entirely on Markarian’s considerable performance skills. An engaging storyteller with a natural ease on stage, Markarian expertly modulated his voice to vary the tempo and the moods of the piece (though at times that voice boomed to excess, due to an unforgiving sound system).
As the latest of Markarian’s myriad contributions to Armenian theater, “Khrimian Hayrig” sent a clear and pleasing message that the 80-year-old writer and thespian has no intention of slowing down.
The prospect of a sequel to “Where Is Your Groom?” – a comedy by Babayan that had its L.A.-area premiere back in 2014 – admittedly had me apprehensive. The earlier play had contended with a number of challenges associated with beginner work – an inexperienced cast, inert staging, and a script hampered with clichés. The sequel, however, which had only a single performance at the AGBU Manoukian Performing Arts Center on March 31, generated genuine laughs thanks to a frequently funny (albeit flawed) script, more confident direction, and the talents of several seasoned cast members.
Central to the play, once again, was the Keshishian family: father Koko who, in this iteration, was writing a book of poetry; mother Siroun, who had launched a business to peddle her famous chorek; son Saro, a lawyer, who had quit his job to travel and “find himself”; and daughter Lara, who was set to marry Ari, a detective immersed in a high-stakes investigation.
“Where Is Your Groom? II” revolved around the bickering between the Keshishian parents and their soon-to-be in-laws, the Apovians, as they planned their children’s wedding: where would they marry? who would cater? how many guests would be invited? Through these questions, the play explored the overbearing ways that parents interfere in their children’s lives. (“We are giving you the wedding of our dreams,” one said.) But the meddling knew no bounds, as the parents even debated what the newlyweds should name their future children. (“Koko,” insisted Lara’s father. And if the baby turned out to be a girl? “Koko Chanel.”)
The newly-introduced Apovian characters, Khatchig and Sirvart, were highly entertaining creations and a steady source of humor. They would show up at the Keshishians’ home at all hours of day, bringing along their own food and proceeding to eat it in their hosts’ presence. Sirvart would indulge in a bit of kleptomania, a habit that oddly disappeared after the first act, even as Khatchig began exhibiting a love of leopard print (something he had not done prior to intermission).
After setting up these delightful Keshishian/Apovian interactions, Babayan’s script would too often interrupt them to go off on tangents: in one major subplot, Lara’s ex-boyfriend appeared and tried to rekindle their fling; in another, more absurd one, an Armenian oligarch arrived from Russia under the mistaken belief that his marriage to Lara had been arranged through a matchmaking service.
Of course, everything got wrapped up in a pat, happy ending.
With a three-hour running time (including a 15-minute late start and a 20-minute intermission), the play’s duration was far too long. (The first act alone was an epic 90 minutes.) Entire scenes were altogether extraneous (including, unfortunately, the ones that opened each act), and several characters could have been eliminated without their absence being felt.
Babayan’s bilingual script was rich with comic moments, however. Her gags were often quite clever – a sequence involving a pair of wedding dresses was particularly inspired – and the production creatively utilized video projections of popular Armenian songs to generate even more laughs. (On a few disappointing occasions, though, the attempt at humor was misguided and played up unsavory stereotypes.)
Not all members of the cast were up for the production’s demands, but several performances were top notch. Harout Soghomonian’s portrayal of Koko provided a full display of his impeccable comic timing, while Aleen Vartkessian’s eccentric rendition of Sirvart was adorned with hilarity. Maro Ajemian’s deadpan exasperation as Siroun was worthy of special mention, along with Haig Hovnanian’s brief but memorable appearance as a priest struggling with Armenian words and Raffi Rupchian’s appealing stage presence, despite the banality of his character (the oligarch Sergei).
Some issues with lines and pacing were likely due to opening (and closing) night nerves and would have probably resolved themselves if the production had a multi-performance run, perhaps in a smaller space. That’s something for Babayan to consider as she contemplates turning “Groom” into a trilogy. I’m surmising she will, given the play’s final line: “Where are the grandchildren?” So long as Babayan continues with this upward trajectory, a third entry from her would be most welcome. I just hope she can deliver it in a 90-minute bundle.
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.