BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
The great Armenian satirist Hagop Baronian wrote about the foibles of the Armenian bourgeoisie in Constantinople during the latter half of the 19th century, skewering that echelon for its materialistic and ostentatious tendencies. Since such tendencies still prevail in present-day Armenian-American communities, Baronian’s century-old plays could have contemporary relevance. But the farce-obsessed Krikor Satamian Theater Company, which stages Baronian’s plays with some frequency, rarely explores their modern resonance and presents them instead as dated relics, often in full Ottoman regalia, including “fez” hats and “shalvar” trousers.
Its latest outing, “Shoghokort” (The Flatterer), is yet another endeavor in this vein. The altogether amateurish production opened last Saturday and runs through June 7.
“Shoghokort” is a peculiar title for the play, since the character to whom it refers is hardly central to the plot; rather, the action is fueled by three men in love with a young woman named Sophie and intent on marrying her: Dikran, the suitor she herself prefers; Tadeh, an old dandy who fancies himself a philosopher; and Tadeh’s adopted son, Arshag, a hack poet, who is in turn pursued by Tadeh’s sister. The “flatterer” flutters in their midst, yet he hardly shapes the course of events; he merely meddles in them – at times for financial gain, at times for motives that go unexplained.
Baronian never completed the script for “Shoghokort,” and it was only published posthumously, after satirist Yervant Odian fashioned an ending for the play, concocting a facile and less-than-satisfactory resolution. The fault does not lie with Odian, though, since the structure of the play, as constructed by Baronian, is convoluted and follows some farcical conventions while ignoring others – to its detriment.
According to the program notes, director Krikor Satamian has made his own adjustments to the script as well. The resulting language is stilted, much like it is in many of Satamian’s translations of farces from foreign languages. There’s a formality to the dialogue that is at odds with how Western Armenian is actually spoken.
Matters are not helped by relatively weak performances, as some newcomers to the troupe are simply unable to carry the substantial roles entrusted to them, and even veteran ensemble members prove prone to unidimensional characterizations. In great part, the cast strains under the vocal demands of musical numbers peppered throughout the play.
At least finer work is done by Vako Nazar as Sophie’s father and by Roupen Harmandayan as the flatterer. Harmandayan’s energetic turn fall short of maximizing the character’s comic potential but hits a number of high points nonetheless. After a tenuous start, Viken Balabanian, as the manservant in Tadeh’s household, earns the evening’s most authentic laughs, thanks to his deadpan delivery and physical slapstick.
Playing the same type of roles year after year, few of the company’s members are being challenged and growing as actors and actresses. The latter, in particular, are too often relegated to stereotypical domesticated roles. At times, the company seems downright stuck in the 19th century. While the ensemble’s unmatched commitment to staging Armenian-language plays remains commendable, its need for a more innovative spirit is becoming dire. A much-awaited renovation of its performance space may help, but real change must originate with the troupe’s leadership and members.
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.”