BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
In her first autobiographical solo work, “Ka yev Chka” (There Is and There Isn’t), Anahid Aramouni Keshishian recounted her early life in pre-revolution Iran; now, six years later, she has returned with a sequel, “There Is and There Isn’t II,” which picks up her story at the time of her family’s immigration to Soviet Armenia and traces her years there until her eventual settlement in the United States.
The show, playing five performances at the Luna Playhouse through August 24, covers a good deal of ground, including Keshishian’s later school years, her efforts to enroll in university, her first jobs under Communist rule, her encounters with sexism, her flirtations with inchoate love, and her father’s debilitating illness.
Although its title is a throwback to the opening words of Armenian fables, “There Is and There Isn’t II” tells a difficult and potent tale, mines deep and painful memories of loss, and is rich with authentic detail. Yet, with a running time of nearly two hours, sans intermission, it turns unwieldy and, at times, self-indulgent. Keshishian bookends the performance piece with her arrival in and departure from Soviet Armenia; otherwise, the piece lacks a framework, and its vignettes follow one another like diary entries, episodic and dependent on chronological date rather than on any thematic through-line.
Still, the stories themselves are frequently poignant, intimate, and revealing. Keshishian uses them to cast a critical eye on a regime prone to censorship and oppression, and built around bribes. She describes an absurd bureaucracy unable to care for its citizenry, particularly in the realm of health, and recalls with anguish the toll it takes on her paraplegic father, especially when the family is assigned to a fifth-floor apartment in a building without an elevator. (After much wrangling, the family is re-assigned . . . to the third floor).
Despite a tenuous start, the show gathers strength in its middle, as Keshishian explores the notion of being an “Other” in her own homeland and confronts the bias against “aghpars” – repatriates from the Diaspora who are spurned by native-born Armenians for their linguistic and cultural differences. Instead of finishing strong, however, the show’s last third devolves into a prolonged travelogue (to such destinations as Leningrad and Vilnius) that cries out for judicious editing.
Keshishian’s memories are often triggered, in Proustian fashion, by music. She references evocative Armenian and Farsi songs, as well as Western tunes of the pop and rock variety, as markers for events in her life. But the songs soon prove excessive, both in number and in volume (even drowning out Keshishian’s voice on occasion), and some of them, including overplayed classics by the Eagles and ABBA, seemingly hold far more meaning for the performer than she is able to convey. Keshishian better incorporates snippets of dance, even displaying a facility with flamenco, but the show’s overall movement scheme underutilizes the performance space.
There is no lack of quality material in “There Is and There Isn’t”; perhaps, there is too much. A dramaturge or a director would be a great asset for Keshishian’s third installment, shaping the text and choreography, and maximizing the stage potential of her next set of intriguing life stories.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is “Happy Armenians.”