BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
Of late, Khoren Aramouni’s plays have been unflinching examinations of the untenable political circumstances and living conditions in Armenia during the post-independence era. His previous work, “Yedtsentsoom” (Aftershock), examined a family in crisis in the aftermath of the 1988 earthquake that struck the country’s north and the economic blockade that devastated the country to the point of paralysis during the 1990s.
Aramouni’s newest drama, “Patand” (The Hostage), which plays through March 24 at Theatre Unlimited in North Hollywood, focuses on a couple disillusioned by the country’s governance to the point of despair – and violence. Staged in 70 taut minutes, “Patand” builds up tension like a coiled spring, but whether it ultimately explodes or implodes proves difficult to say.
“Patand” revolves around the complicated relationship of Aram, a military hero of the war with Azerbaijan for the liberation of the Karabakh enclave, and Gayane, his wife. Now unemployed and rudderless, Aram whiles his days away drinking, napping, and lamenting, through sudden outbursts, the woes of the Armenian republic. So disgusted is he with the ineffective and corrupt leadership of the country that he indulges – with mock fondness – in memories of Soviet times.
Gayane endures Aram’s unique form of post-traumatic stress disorder, even as she presses on with daily struggles – not the least of which is carrying buckets of water up to their 9th-story apartment. In this marginal state, Aram and Gayane find the bonds of their relationship fraying, along with their intimacy. “Love” and “sex” have not just left their lives; they’ve disappeared from the dictionary itself. Aramouni engages a key motif of absurdist theater – the inadequacy of language – to illustrate the loss of meaningful existence for the couple.
Indeed, the couple’s relationship takes the darkest of turns when Aram tells his wife that he wants to kill her. Specifically, he wants to make a sacrifice of her – both to God and to Armenia’s callous rulers – so that the misery of his countrymen will cease. With all the potency of a Greek tragedy, the play ventures into disquieting territory here. Aram helps Gayane wash, as if partaking in some pagan purification ritual, then eroticizes the impending violence by confessing his desire for a wild sexual encounter with her. (Apparently, “sex” has made its way back into the dictionary.)
Mid-way through the play, however, this well-crafted build-up, rich with metaphor, gives way to a literal hostage-taking situation, as Aram ties up his wife, suspends her from the window of their apartment, and threatens to cut the rope. A doctor is summoned to the apartment, Aram shifts his demands to medical care for a hospitalized relative (a new plot thread), and Aramouni’s potentially great script essentially abandons its grand ideas and ambitious scope, and settles for being an account of a damaged military man’s unraveling. Aramazd Stepanian’s direction fuels the overwrought action, rather than restraining it.
Lesser supporting performances add to the production’s flaws, but the two leads – Aram Mouradyan and Meri Hambardzumyan – excel in difficult roles. It’s hard to believe that Hambardzumyan is a relative newcomer to the stage. (She only made her debut last year.) Mouradyan has a long list of credits and is typically superb, but even if judged against that high standard, his latest portrayal is a knockout.
Given the present situation in Armenia, the timeliness of “Patand” cannot be overstated. I wish there were more playwrights like Aramouni tackling sociopolitical themes of such import – and doing it with such immediacy. As often as not, however, immediacy comes at a price, curtailing the time needed for a play’s gestation and development, and denying it the objectivity that temporal distance allows.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is “Happy Armenians.”