BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
Since only a handful of Armenian plays grace Southland stages in any given year, the concentration of four – four! – plays in a single month must have required a rare alignment of the planets. The cavalcade of comedy began early in May with “Shoghokort” (The Flatterer), which is continuing its multi-weekend run. “Unusual Heroes” premiered mid-month and is slated for a repeat staging in June, while “Where Is Your Groom?” (Pesad Oor Eh?), a visiting production from the East Coast, played only a single performance. “Rafael Qerou 2 Kantseruh” (The 2 Treasures of Uncle Rafael) begins at month’s end.
Whatever glee such quantity induced, however, has been tempered – so far anyway – by the lackluster quality of the offerings themselves. “Heroes,” the latest comedy from Vahik Pirhamzei (though his first in English) was hindered by a muddled and middling script, and “Groom” was a collaboration between theater novices, which proved all too apparent in every aspect of the production. (I’ve already written about the shortcomings of “Shoghokort.”)
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“Heroes” was a half hour late in starting, which meant that the audience at Beyond the Stars “Palace” – a grotesque misnomer – suffered through 30 minutes of ads, projected on oversized screens, for criminal law attorneys and cellulite treatments.
The play itself unfolded at a beauty salon full of “Steel Magnolias”-style drama: proprietor Scarlett is on the verge of losing her business due to her husband’s gambling problems; her wealthy client, Luiza, has spousal issues of her own, thanks to a philandering mate; and her receptionist, Lily, is dating a chiropractor 18 years her senior. Joining them is Paula, a law school graduate hiding from her father and her fiancé the fact that she did not pass the Bar exam (never mind that results are posted online).
What begins as an ordinary day is interrupted by breaking news about an Armenian fugitive named Heros, who may have hurt a pregnant woman, leaving her hospitalized. Heros seeks refuge at the salon, ostensibly setting up a hostage situation. Except that Heros is about as threatening as a dove, calling into question whether he hurt the pregnant lady at all.
Pirhamzei’s script had the structure of comedy but lacked its zing. There was a clever exchange about the multiple languages and dialects of Armenian spoken by the characters, and Pirhamzei pulled off some funny moves during a dance sequence. Far more prevalent, however, were tired jokes about chiropractors, mothers-in-law, and Glendale; mere mention of that city seems to serve as a punchline these days.
Further confusing the play’s tone was Pirhamzei’s insistence on exploring – in a serious way – psychological and social issues, including infidelity and domestic violence. Heros, we were told, has Asperger’s, although as played by Pirhamzei, he came across as developmentally challenged instead. A faux ending to the play verged on the tragic – scored to melodramatic music, no less – only to reverse course and reveal a happy twist.
Incorporating video vignettes for the news segments was a peculiar choice, as it essentially stopped the action on stage so that the characters could watch television! Still, these segments were well-cast and frequently entertaining.
The live cast was strong as well, as it tends to be in all Pirhamzei projects. Anahid Avanesian’s take on Scarlett was overly fussy and a tad superficial, but Helen Kalognomos and Paola Kassabian exhibited strong stage presence, and Narine Avakian’s turn as Lily managed to be both buoyant and deep.
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Over in South Pasadena High School’s cavernous auditorium, “Where Is Your Groom?” had its start 25 minutes late.
If I were writing a feature story about the play, I’d expound on the initiative shown by playwright/director Taleen Babayan and her merry cast of non-actors in not only crafting a work of theater and performing it on the East Coast, but then bringing it out west. These young Armenians – seemingly in their 20s and 30s – were eager to express, through artistic means, the challenges of maintaining identity in a diaspora. Due to their lack of training and experience in theater, however, the resulting piece never transcended the level of beginners’ work.
“Groom” revolved mostly around the rather odd Keshishian family. Siroun, the mother, is a fan of Adis (the singer who gifted “Karoun Karoun” to the world), though she’s primarily occupied with baking chorek pastries and urging everyone to eat them. Koko, the father, quotes Armenian poetry in between asking his daughter, “Where is your groom?” Saro, the son, practices law when he’s not carousing with myriad women – or his octogenarian grandmother. And Lara, the daughter, is a 28-year-old who still lives at home, while dating odars – non-Armenians – because she is disillusioned with the caliber of Armenian guys in the community.
The search for an Armenian groom for Lara turns into a parade – and I don’t use that word lightly – of potential suitors, including Jiro, weighed down by his jewelry and ego. Then there’s Levon and Paul and Armen and spastic Artem, not to mention Ari, the detective summoned to investigate the disappearance of a Fabergé egg. Yes, a missing Fabergé egg is key to the storyline.
Babayan’s writing fluidly alternated between Armenian and English; however, even with the level of exaggeration that satire allows, the script’s treatment of social situations bordered on the preposterous, while the play’s characters – all sixteen of them! – were little more than caricatures. The parental generation was given particularly short shrift. Armenian parents surely cling to some Old World habits, which can be overbearing at times; indeed, the play was justified in calling them out for guilting their children into marriage. But parents of Siroun and Koko’s age (presumably in their 50s), who’ve managed to raise professional children in the United States, are as apt to be focused on their children’s education, careers, and financial well-being, as on their marital status. And they have no problems handling modern phones and sending text messages.
Virtually all the cast members – most of them nowhere near the age of the characters they were portraying – were stepping onto a stage for the first time, a reality that the caliber of the performances made evident. It did not help to have a neophyte director helming the production. Stage movement was inert, often consisting of having several characters sit in a row. Actors vacated the stage – or returned – for no discernible reason, except that they did not have lines to speak for a while. There were props on stage, including actual food, but the act of eating was mimed, and drinks were poured out of empty bottles.
Nevertheless, a great deal of self-confidence was required – both on and off stage – for this start-up troupe to pull off this production. I am hopeful that Babayan and her cohorts will devote some time to study and training prior to their next venture. That kind of investment will surely pay high artistic dividends.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is an adaptation of “Ancient Gods.”