BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
In less than 18 months, Hamazkayin’s Sos Sargsyan State Theater Company of Armenia has visited the Southland twice for week-long theater festivals, the first of which unfolded in October 2013 and its successor just last week.
The ensemble – named for the renowned actor of stage and screen – had distinguished itself at the previous festival for its first-rate acting, which frequently surpassed the caliber of the presented material and its staging. The festival’s second incarnation similarly stood out as an acting showcase, even at times when the productions themselves did not meet their potential.
A new venue – the El Portal in the NoHo Arts District – provided the professional troupe with an elegant space in which to perform four productions, three of which were U.S. premieres.
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Kicking off the festival was “Amenalav Dounuh” (The Best Home), a play for young audiences, which had four daytime performances attended by students – 1,800 of them representing a broad spectrum of Armenian schools. The exposure to Armenian theater that Hamazkayin provided to these youth was surely the festival’s greatest feat.
For adult audiences, the festival began with “44 Astichani Vra” (Under 44 Degrees), which had been the centerpiece of the first festival. Asdghig Simonian’s drama about emigrating from and repatriating to Armenia was performed only once this past week. (A second performance – in San Francisco – is slated for February 15.) I did not attend this encore staging, having seen the piece before, when I was struck by the memorable performances of Varsham Gevorgyan and Tatev Ghazaryan.
Gevorgyan and Ghazaryan were equally impressive in the new productions. Ghazaryan, in particular, was a leading player in all three evening productions, exhibiting an astonishing range of talent in the realms of both comedy and tragedy.
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The centerpiece of this year’s festival was Mkrtich Kheranian’s “Shkhonts Mihran,” a profound and challenging work dedicated to the memory of the Armenian Genocide and performed on the occasion of its centennial.
“Shkhonts Mihran” is a study of its title character, an Armenian from Van – and a veteran of the resistance movement there – who has survived the Genocide and finds himself in Yerevan toiling as a cobbler. The play alternates between Mihran’s reality and his memory, utilizing flashbacks to recount Mihran’s early life in Van, his courtship of a young woman, and his family’s violent displacement with the onset of the massacres.
An ambitious piece with epic scope, “Shkhonts Mihran” depicts a moment of existential crisis in Armenian history, where despair, yearning, and hope intertwine. The script, rich with the dialect of Van, traverses through time and geography, and the play’s sweeping themes and large cast structure it for a production of grand scale.
There were hints of grandeur in director Davit Hakobyan’s production, as when the entire ensemble, resembling a Greek chorus, appeared onstage to rhythmically recite the Armenian alphabet or else to sing a defiant rendition of “Dele Yaman” (instead of heeding to that love song’s sorrowful melody). These goosebump-inducing moments notwithstanding, Hakobyan’s otherwise spare staging, practically devoid of design elements, could not actualize the play’s full potential and promise.
Productions with a minimalist aesthetic can be immensely powerful, but the almost-bare set and the rough lighting scheme of “Shkhonts Mihran” gave the production an impoverished look and were at odds with the overblown music cues (poorly edited, lacking fluid transitions, and featuring out-of-place electronic beats), not to mention the play’s crowd scenes. At times, sloppiness crept into the choreography, and death marches, recreated through stylized stomping, bordered on being unintentionally funny, rather than capturing the image of a decimated populace walking a thin line between extinction and survival.
It seems that Hakobyan prioritized acting above all else, and to be sure, the production was sensationally performed by an expert cast led by Gagik Madoyan, utterly engrossing as Mihran; Tatev Ghazaryan, exquisite as Mihran’s harried, yet nurturing (and ultimately devastated) mother; and Arman Navasardyan, both menacing and droll as an inebriated military commander.
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The festival’s final production was “Prgutyan Gughzi” (Salvation Island), Nikolay Tsaturyan’s adaptation of William Saroyan’s teleplay “The Oyster and the Pearl” (with a sprinkling of the short story “70,000 Assyrians”).
Set in 1954, “Salvation Island” takes place in a tiny town along California’s Central Coast, where an Assyrian man named Elia Badal operates a barbershop.
Just like Nick’s saloon in Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life,” Badal’s barbershop serves as the gathering spot for locals and for strangers passing through town. Among the locals are Clay Larrabee, a mischievous teenager; Vivian McCutcheon, the town’s new (and pretty) schoolteacher; and the goofy “Judge” Applecart. The visitor among them is an Armenian writer – a character reminiscent of Saroyan himself – who is on his way to Hollywood.
Typical of Saroyan plays – whimsical and leisurely paced – not much happens in “Salvation Island” by way of action. Its central conflict revolves around Clay, whose father, Clark, has left his family in search of work in Salinas. Clay believes that if he can scrape together enough money, his father will come home, so when he finds a large oyster, he is convinced that it contains a pearl massive enough to solve his family’s monetary woes.
Otherwise, the play celebrates gentle, ordinary existence in a sleepy town where life, as Badal says, consists of simple pleasures like fishing, reading the newspaper, and cutting hair. “Salvation Island” is full of quirkiness and poignancy, both of which resonated strongly in Tsaturyan’s staging of his own script. A sequence in which Badal sings a traditional Assyrian song, while the Armenian writer simultaneously sings “Dele Yaman,” provided quite moving. Still, the production could not entirely avoid slipping into Saroyanesque sentimentality, especially in its final tableau.
The cast was, again, uniformly strong, with Davit Hakobyan’s well-crafted performance as Badal serving as its anchor. Tatev Ghazaryan, playing a “breeches” role (a male character), was delightfully puckish as Clay, while Varsham Gevorgyan brought nuance to his portrayal of Clark as a loving father weighed down by financial burdens.
“Salvation Island” ended the festival on a far higher note than a somewhat unsatisfying variety show had done last time. At this point, the Sos Sargsyan ensemble is becoming wonderfully familiar to Southland audiences, who are growing rather accustomed to the bounty of original Armenian plays being performed by a troupe at the top of its game.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His play “Happy Armenians” is slated for production this fall.