BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
Three one-act plays by Harold Pinter – collectively billed as “Oppression” – were staged (through April 29) by the Armenian Theatre Company to commemorate the 103rd anniversary of the Armenian Genocide; in actuality, these politically-charged pieces have better coincided – and resonated – with the wave of protests currently sweeping through Armenia and seeking an end to corrupt, oligarchic rule.
A winner of the Nobel Prize who died a decade ago, Pinter often tackled issues of political brutality and abuse of power in his plays, some of which are described as “comedies of menace.” The tension in his works is rooted in loaded silences and the constant threat of violence looming beneath seemingly-ordinary circumstances.
“Mountain Language,” “The New World Order,” and “Party Time” – the plays that comprise “Oppression” – reflect these facets of Pinter’s writing well. Regrettably, they don’t constitute the entire program devised by director Aramazd Stepanian; rather, they compete (or clash) with a mish-mash of additional features (time-fillers?), including a rather jumbled opening speech (by Stepanian himself); a reading of a somewhat-dated Christopher Hitchens essay; and a number of rustic folk songs by Woody Guthrie, which prove quite incongruent in tone with Pinter’s refined and layered compositions.
Pinter wrote the evening’s first piece, “Mountain Language,” in response to the persecution of Kurds in Turkey, where they are referred to as “mountain Turks” by the government. “Mountain Language” unfolds at a prison, as the wives and mothers of inmates – presumably incarcerated by a repressive regime for their “Kurdishness” – wait to see their loved ones. Whether the inmates and their visitors are allowed to communicate in their native tongue serves as a central focus of the short play, with Pinter depicting linguistic expression and suppression as political acts. Manik Bahl renders a moving performance as a prisoner aching to speak with his mother, while Brian Caelleigh is particularly effective as a sinister guard.
In the ensuing work, “The New World Order,” two doctors are preparing to torture a political prisoner with surgical tools. Pinter’s writing contemplates the absurd uses to which language is put in justifying brutality and evil, and its dark humor is subversive (although it was mostly lost on the opening night audience – an anemic group numbering fewer than 20). An excellent turn by Manik Bahl as one of the sadistic docs propels this intriguing chamber piece.
Unfortunately, the cast cannot wrap its arms around the final (and most substantial) offering, “Party Time,” which takes place at a fancy cocktail party as ominous developments transpire right outside. Brian Caelleigh and Jerilyn Gashi rise to the challenge of this nuanced piece – Gashi is frequently funny while Caelleigh is sharp and cutting – but the cast’s less experienced members never manage to find the play’s cadences and rhythm. (Line struggles don’t help.) Suffice it to say that Pinter is not for novices.
A bit more investment in production values would have helped the overall cause. A makeshift set, basic lighting, and a woefully wanting venue (the poorly-maintained T.U. Studios in North Hollywood) detract from an effort that shows more promise than it ultimately delivers.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His next production, “William Saroyan’s Theater of Diaspora: The Unpublished Plays in Performance,” is slated to have its world premiere this fall.