BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
“Beast on the Moon” – Richard Kalinoski’s chamber play about two survivors of the Armenian Genocide – has been produced by “countless theaters across the country and around the world,” according to its promotional materials. Sure enough, I myself have now seen it four times in four different cities, most recently in Long Beach, where the play is being revived by the International City Theatre through September 8.
The two Genocide survivors at the heart of the play are Aram Tomasian, a photographer living in Milwaukee, and his child-bride, Seta; both of them have lost their families in horrific ways during the carnage of 1915 and are trying to form a new family together. In fact, Aram’s sole focus in life is to reproduce offspring in order to fill the void of the family that was wiped out. The play recounts, in quiet tableaux, the perfunctory sex that the Tomasians have in order to procreate – an act that proves futile because the starvation that Seta suffered during the Genocide years has left her unable to conceive.
Haunted by the past and unable to create a future for themselves, Aram and Seta settle into a dismal dynamic – an altogether patriarchal one. Aram reads to his wife from the Bible in sermonizing tones, expecting domesticity and obedience from her. Over the years, however, Seta learns to weaponize silence – as a scene that unfolds over a lamb stew dinner grippingly illustrates – and eventually asserts her own voice, even quoting the Bible herself to advance her arguments. The couple’s lonely existence changes unexpectedly when a neighborhood boy comes into their lives. Vincent, a precocious street urchin, also hails from miserable circumstances, adding to the collective suffering of the play’s characters.
And suffer they do. Kalinoski’s script – chock-full of revelations about the horrors of the Genocide – is fraught with peril; while it can pack a punch if handled the right way, it can also devolve, quite easily, into overwrought sentimentality. Years ago, an Off-Broadway production directed by Larry Moss played against sentiment and unleashed shattering performances by Omar Metwally and Lena Georgas in the process; the ITC revival presents a rather mixed bag of both lovely and unfortunate choices (such as an overreliance on the plaintive strains of duduk music).
Director caryn desai [sic] stages the action in a straightforward manner, and Travis Leland’s performance as Aram is serviceable, although his portrayal rarely involves layering beyond dourness. Rachel Weck brings far more range to her role, and while her portrayal of Seta as a 15-year-old is not entirely convincing, she grows nicely into the character’s older years and achieves moments of deep poignancy.
Still, the performances are marred by some dreadful accents, which grate to the point of distraction. Why do Aram and Seta speak with accents to each other anyway? Presumably, they’re conversing in Armenian; how else could Seta, having newly arrived in Milwaukee, have perfect diction? Oddly, they have the same accents when they’re speaking English with Vincent, whose own overblown Italian accent adds to the stereotyping and diminishes what may have been a subtle, yet effective, commentary on the “melting pot” of immigration.
JR Norman Luker’s scenic design features a mammoth cross that extends horizontally over the stage. Far more interesting are the design elements – a mish-mash of human bones and scattered household items, fossilized, ashen, and macabre – that provide a visually arresting frame for an otherwise sparse set; but they remain at a remove from the stage action.
Kalinoski’s play has become the go-to drama about the Genocide since its premiere in 1995; this is, in part, due to the sheer paucity of plays on the subject and, in part, due to the play’s own reductive style, which makes its story and characters accessible to non-Armenian audiences. The opening night crowd, which included Kalinoski himself, was warmly receptive to the performance and rewarded it with a standing ovation. For me, re-experiencing the play for the first time since the Genocide centennial and since our discourse about the Genocide has evolved from one of mourning to one of resilience and reparations, “Beast” came across as an aging tale of victimhood, a story we Armenians have heard too many times.