BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
Audiences familiar with Vahik Pirhamzei’s work are apt to recognize his Uncle Rafael character, who first appeared on stage and later on screen. Pirhamzei dons make-up and a wig to play the septuagenarian figure, whose mustache and bowler hat render him Chaplinesque, but who is more faithfully the modern incarnation of an agha archetype one would encounter in a Hagop Baronian satire.
The third installment of the Rafael plays – “Rafael Qerou 2 Kantseruh” (The 2 Treasures of Uncle Rafael) – premiered in late May and is playing select dates through June 29. A rather funny pastiche, it features Pirhamzei in four roles: playwright, director, Rafael, and his son, Hamo.
Fueling the play’s plot is Rafael’s decision to repatriate to Armenia with his elderly friend Haigaz in tow. Rafael believes that if people can’t choose the place of their birth, they can certainly choose where to die. “Is Armenia such a bad place to die?” he asks.
His decision soon meets with obstacles, including the objections of Aghavni, his sister. Haigaz himself begins to harbor doubts about leaving his children behind, not to mention reneging on his promise to care for his neighbor’s cat.
In the meantime, Rafael does stand-up at his son’s comedy club, filling in for Hamo, who’s out of town on a film shoot. This plot device affords an easy way for Pirhamzei to spew punchlines in quick succession, much to the delight of his (predominantly barsgahai) audience. The gentleman sitting next to me – a complete stranger – frequently kept turning to me with a look that asked, “Isn’t it hilarious?” I generally had to agree that it was.
Along with traditional scenes and the stand-up sequences, the play is sprinkled with video segments (Skype sessions projected on large screens) and live music – novelty lyrics set to the melody of famous Armenian songs. The whole endeavor seems slapped together at times, sort of a vaudeville show, albeit in the digital era.
While the script’s structure is wanting, Rafael’s zingers are consistently prickly, as he takes on dentists, real estate agents, bad drivers, and mistresses. There’s nothing sacred; jokes about mammograms and cremation are fair game, though they manage to be razor-sharp without being offensive. Pirhamzei’s writing touches on deeper issues as well, including repatriation, economic hardship, and the burdens of age.
Energetic pace is a defining feature of Pirhamzei’s productions, and this one is no exception. The vibrant performances by Anahid Avanesian, Lusine Sargsyan, and Shake Toukhmanian are professional-caliber, and Ludwig Manukian is authentically understated as Haigaz.
“Rafael” is all the more impressive because the prolific Pirhamzei staged it a mere two weeks after “Unusual Heroes,” his first English-language play. “Heroes” may not be sequel-worthy, but Uncle Rafael is welcome back anytime.
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.”