BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
So far as I know, Armenian performance art in Los Angeles has not confronted issues of gender and sexual identity ever since Nancy Agabian left these parts for the East Coast over a decade ago. Perhaps that’s what makes “Dear Armen” – a still-developing, yet daring multi-genre study of a transgender Armenian that’s currently touring L.A. and San Francisco – such a fresh and intriguing work of theater.
Admittedly a work in progress, “Dear Armen” played a single performance for a sold-out, supportive crowd on Monday, Oct. 27, at the Levantine Cultural Center in L.A.’s Mid-City region; it has now moved on to the Bay Area for a two-weekend run with Golden Thread Productions.
Created by Lee Williams Boudakian and Kamee Abrahamian, and comprised of monologues and dialogues, dance sequences, musical interludes, and direct interaction with audience members, “Dear Armen” is a rather revelatory piece – albeit one that needs both artistic and technical polish.
“Dear Armen” revolves around Garo (born Garineh), “a genderqueer writer and student,” who dispenses with gender-specific pronouns by referring to himself/herself as “they.” Garo is researching the life of Armen Ohanian, an enigmatic historical figure who garnered fame performing exotic Oriental dances early in the 20th century, when the style of free interpretive dance was coming into vogue.
Ohanian, who was actually born Sophia Pirboudaghian in present-day Azerbaijan, kept her first husband’s last name, even though her marriage to him was short-lived. She did, however, change her first name – initially to Armenuhi, then to Armen – as she performed in Tehran, throughout the Ottoman Empire, and in Europe; later, she became a writer, a memoirist, and a political activist.
In the opening moments of “Dear Armen,” we see Garo immersed in the research process. This glacially paced sequence (reminiscent of a Paradjanov scene) leaves much time for the audience to ponder the inhospitable venue for the performance – an intimate art gallery space with makeshift seating and rudimentary lights.
Fortunately, the pace quickly picks up, as Garo’s research into Ohanian turns into a journey of self-discovery. Garo believes that Ohanian had a “budding queer identity,” in light of her intimate relationship with lesbian poet Natalie Barney; the refuge she sought behind metaphorical masks; and her decidedly male-gendered name.
Queer identity for Garo leads to conflict, since his family – raised in the conservative traditions of Middle Eastern countries – can only see him as Garineh. Their ensuing confrontations occasionally resonate as cliché, but “Dear Armen” manages to avoid undue sentimentality. That’s because Garineh is never depicted as a weak victim. Rather, she has the fortitude to push back and refuse to bear the shame her family tries to inflict upon her. Perhaps she’s not the “good Armenian girl” her family wanted her to be; but, as she points out, “that doesn’t make me bad.” She is equally resistant to religious guilt, proclaiming, “I am not a disgrace to God.”
Most of the time, Garo/Garineh is portrayed by Boudakian, while Abrahamian performs the dances that punctuate the work. Both are engaging actresses, but it can be difficult to distinguish the various secondary roles they assume. In certain instances, Abrahamian stands in for Garo/Garineh, illustrating the fluidity of identity construction.
The dance sequences, which alternate between tame and audacious, can be better incorporated into the text, since their connection to Ohanian seems tenuous at times. Indeed, organically merging Ohanian’s life with that of Garo/Garineh often proves the production’s biggest challenge. Expository biographical passages verge on lecture, and voice-over segments featuring Ohanian’s writings are poorly timed.
Nevertheless, there’s a fearlessness to the performance and its examination of the cultural and corporeal aspects of gender as a continuum. “Dear Armen” provides an ambitious historical and artistic context for the topic that will surely deepen as Boudakian and Abrahamian continue fine-tuning this promising work.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is “49 States.”