BY BEDROS AFEYAN
How do you write a play about your own life (as you reach 60)? How do you write about anyone else’s life, real or imagined? These questions are not separable and the answers intertwine just as fiercely. Life, a punctuated series of misunderstandings, is clarified by writing, for the lucky writer. Comprehension does not lead to less accidents and the avoidance of unintended consequences, but it does lead to some more sanity, or its semblance, temporarily. The comedy and tragedy of significant insignificances and insignificant accidents accumulate and start dancing on their own accord and you can but record their slips and falls, their flips and twirls, forever more.
A writer is a happy beast who lives to write and writes to live. He has a dimension of existence beyond bread, butter and sperm. Beyond compliments, breasts and painted storms. He can ingest and infuse, infest and suffuse, embed and imbue until the aroma of alleyways and living rooms, hospital beds and solitudes come together, right now, over you.
Gyank is a play by Vahé Berberian which “dares disturb the universe,” as T. S. Eliot asked himself whether he could do, a century ago in the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. It is a man and his pen, his ice pick and his den, his word processor and his strained cranium, trying to make sense of the mishmash surrounding the circle dance of his closest relatives and loved ones. A man with many women with whom his life unrolls: mothers, sisters, wives, their mothers, their sisters, and on it goes. How does Vahe absorb the din and retransmit its essence through Gyank? I shall attempt to tell you, the magic brew and its lineage with theaters past.
Vahé Berberian wants to be relevant and deep, hip and broad, focused and palatable, Armenian and American, young and old, savvy and un-savable, lost and redeemed all at the same time. In other words, he does not want to ever lose his charm. He transfers his charm to women characters in this play for the first time. Women who are, let us say, difficult. They abuse and are abused. They hurt and are more hurt in return. They are not happy, they are not settled, they are not murmuring, they are not jumping from cliffs, but who knows what the next instant might bring? Vahés women, most closely resemble those of Pedro Almodovar’s, at the brink of having nervous breakdowns or doing every possible improvisational exercise to get ready for that eventuality, when it comes. These are Woody Allen women as well. They are not satisfiable and they are not walk-all-over-able. They are flesh and blood and tongue and fist and fury and gumption ready to fall apart and cry and curse and leave and manipulate till you lose sight of up, down, East or best, and perhaps never recover truly, no matter how it turns out.
This essential pessimism concerns a life almost all lived already (60 is not a small number). Its fights and fumbles are registered, now reanalyzed showing the comedy of errors compounding on essential errors that are there to embarrass and belie. So the screaming has stopped in the outer ear but still buzzes so very loud in the inner one, that Vahé has to transmute that chorus to a set of stringed characters he can walk across a stage and let graze, much as one might a well groomed dog, one is secretly quite afraid of. Here is the wife, beautiful and sexy, yet sexless and unreachable to the protagonist. To random lovers, it is a different story. Two daughters who are making their turns at the relationship mistake wheel and coming up short or ballooned up due to early pregnancy or are off banging an Odar (foreigner/ non-Armenian) from Orange County which can lead to no good, now, you know…
And the comic relief of the grandma, always present and jabbering one old fashioned cliché after another, one oft-repeated wisdom with absurdity embroidering its seems as any ever heard, Leading to your eyebrows being squished together in disbelief that such arguments and conclusions can be made and maintained by someone with the same genetic code as you, to a large part…
Vahé has heard his mother speak, and his sisters speak and his wife speak and now Gyank sweeps itself out of him to make them have the very lives that in 2 hours make their four to six decades together seem like a slow cooked funhouse as opposed to the exaggerated destinies that stages count on and demand. The writer in the play is not charming and he is not a giving person. To amplify the beauty of otherwise hysterical women exchanging banter, Vahé has had to dry his male character up to a considerable extent. This is a pity. A charming and vibrant writer central character might have made it harder to reach the fever pitch fights and shouting matches as can be found with clockwork regularity in Gyank. Instead, the arguments and discussions might have had to have been subtler and more nuanced forcing the tenor of the play to deviate from crisis, comic relief, crisis, comic relief oscillations to which it now succumbs. A more sophisticated polyrhythmic scheme might have led to a richer structure of exchanges and gaffs which would have saved the day by its texture and profundity. It is false to cater to an audience of a silly or droll utterance by a daughter or a grandma while the main couple are biting into each others’ skin with unrelenting intensity. Yes there is another lover the neglected wife is now working with. So what? But I only love you, she says, before going on to destroy him some more. He, in turn, devoid of personal charm, or with charm that rings false, is condemned to endure his medical crises with the hope of coming out at the other end a changed man for the better. But he comes out, essentially a vegetable. Now they love him and swear to take care of him. But his life force is gone. And in good Oscar Wyldian fashion it has been transferred to the art itself, Dorian Gray has won the battle. To the play belongs vitality and vigor and life while the playwright, much like a spawning salmon, will soon die and be lost to the process of life regeneration. For those of us without physical children, it is our art and science, our handywork and our imaginations that must carry the torch of existence and Life, writ large, Gyank, forward.
You have a choice. Live on the page, live on stage, live inside your head, or live the quotidian life of couples and siblings and families and many entangled body disappointments. But LIVE, comes the message. Its all good. Its all valid. Live! Vahé is gentle and persuasive. He is mocking and gently caring at the same time. After all, this is to the most part, his pain. So walk slowly and listen to the murmurs of the joy he did have, despite the world coming apart around him in two continents and two coasts and multiply estrogenated living room heavens that he calls his nest and home.
The acting by the able ensemble was very convincing and true to the written word. These are well sketched characters who must constantly clash and recover, hold an identity and lose it at each juncture. Not an easy feat, that! The ladies in the play pull it off well. The main protagonist is much more problematical since he comes off flippant and frustrating enough not to matter. So that could use much more work to polish up and up, which we hope the grueling reality of “under the spot light” performances will lead towards. See the play and tell your friends about it too!
If only Mr. Afeyan could have spared us this stream-of-consciousness gibberish by keeping it in his private journal . . .
This is actually a great review–thank you, Bedros–and mirrors a lot of what my friends and I discussed about the play. I do think it’s Vahe’s most mature work to-date. Some false notes, however, were irksome. In particular, Bedros’ summation of the play’s ultimate message as being ‘it’s all good’–well, maybe not. I can’t see ANY Armenian mother berating her daughter for having a child. An Armenian mother may find fault in her daughter’s path, but would never make a negative comment regarding the impending birth of a child. This is just nonsensical. And besides, our heroine already has the two ‘extremes’ herself–the free spirit (superbly acted by Houri), and the mom-to-be–which you think would satisfy her ‘creative intello’ soul. She would celebrate her offspring’s life choices and not pass judgment in that harsh a manner–and know, ultimately, that a family (since she is so very protective of hers) is certainly nothing “michangial”, as her character states. It can be a life well-lived as any other.