BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
Lilly Thomassian devoted tremendous effort – arduous and prolonged – to bringing her latest play to the stage. “Komitas,” a study of the iconic priest who was instrumental in preserving Armenian folk music, had its world premiere last weekend at the Atwater Village Theatre, where it is scheduled to run through August 19. It is a thematically and stylistically ambitious work – rich with ideas and visual images, yet frustratingly flawed.
Thomassian maintains in the playbill that she did not intend to write a biography; still that is exactly what “Komitas” is. It traces its titular subject’s life from youth to death and, in between, depicts him being ordained a priest, wandering the countryside in search of traditional village songs, establishing the legendary Kousan choir, and cultivating a special (and possibly romantic) relationship with Margaret Babayan. It concludes with him witnessing the horrors of the Genocide and descending into madness due to its trauma.
All this is a great deal of material to condense into a single play and, at times, it seems as if Thomassian could not decide whether to write a musical ode, a theological debate, a psychological drama, or a love story. As a result, the script lacks a strong point of view and lends itself to being weighed down with exposition and preachy philosophy. Among its storylines, Komitas’ struggle with temptations of the flesh proves the least interesting (especially since that theme was given its definitive treatment long ago in Levon Shant’s “Ancient Gods”). By contrast, Komitas’ yearning for his long-dead mother resonates emotionally and provides the play with its poignant final tableau.
Indeed, there are strikingly beautiful moments throughout the play, which nicely infuses dramatic structure with elements of abstract performance. Choreographed movement by Fernando Belo is often evocative, and a fluid dance sequence between Komitas and Margaret is hauntingly memorable. Equally moving are sequences when young Komitas (played with innocent charm by Arthur Parian) shares the stage with his older self, and their words echo one another.
Other theatrical effects, however, fall flat. Poetic recitations of loaded words (“sin/sin/sin” and “shame/shame/shame”) seem contrived, and actual buzzing sounds to indicate rumors verge on parody. Attempting to conjure up grand images – of the mammoth Kousan choir and even of the Genocide – with only a handful of actors seems a misguided idea. The voices for the choir sound particularly deflating, although original music composed by Ara Dabandjian delicately accents the play’s shifting moods.
The role of adult Komitas demands much of Jesse Einstein, who bears an eerie physical resemblance to the play’s namesake. Einstein has to strike humorous and tragic tones, speak and sing Armenian phrases, and perform precise choreography, all of which he does with proficiency. He has a confident stage presence, but his performance lacks deeper layers and reveals little about the interior of a very complicated figure.
Gina Manziello’s lovely voice distinguishes her performance as Margaret, and Joe Hulser lends strong support, though the cast suffers some weaker links as well. The staging by director Pavel Cerny is brisk but, at points, insensitive to its audience. While the theater has two seating sections, the action is disproportionately geared to one side. (A word to the wise: If you’re facing the stage, grab your seat in the left section.)
I should put my criticisms in context by disclosing that on the night I saw the play, the audience rewarded the performance with a standing ovation. I too expect that the production will grow stronger as it settles into its run and continues to provide, with inventiveness and flair, an unflinching look at a giant of Armenian history.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is “Happy Armenians.”