BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
Over the past five years, the Hamazkayin Theatre Company has been slowly carving out for itself a niche role as the purveyor of Armenian-language plays for young audiences. Its efforts began with “The Secret of the Flower Pot” in 2016, followed by “The Adventures of Chigareli” last year. Hamazkayin productions offer mostly daytime performances attended by students of local Armenian schools as part of cultural field trips, along with one or two evening or weekend performances for broader audiences.
Hamazkayin’s most recent offering, “Dern ou Dzaran” (The Master and the Servant), which played at the Colony Theatre in Burbank during the week of February 17, was the organization’s most assured outing yet. What the production lacked in polish, it certainly made up in exuberance.
Adapted from a tale by Hovhannes Tumanyan, a prominent Armenian writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “Dern ou Dzaran” concerns a pair of orphaned brothers, one of whom, Hamo, is taken on by the village bigwig, Garabet “agha,” as a servant. The terms of the deal include a provision that if either party – the master or the servant – is provoked to anger against the other, he will incur a penalty of 1,000 coins.
From the get-go, Hamo suffers at the hands of Garabet and his haughty wife, Nunufar, who work him to the point of collapse. Unable to endure this merciless treatment, Hamo erupts in anger toward his master, triggering the agreement’s penalty clause. Without the money to pay the exorbitant sum and facing the prospect of unpaid servitude, Hamo runs away.
Soon after, Hamo’s brother, Saro, accepts the agha’s challenge and enters his service. Quickly enough, Saro proves to be Hamo’s opposite: lazy, indifferent, and intent on turning the master-servant arrangement upside-down, manipulating the agha to anger, and revenging his brother’s mistreatment in the process.
I must admit that prior to seeing the production, its premise had me somewhat wary. This central construct of a master-servant relationship sounded not just dated but rather out of step with our times. Fortunately, the adaptation by Vigen Stepanyan exuded an altogether modern sensibility and even indulged a bit of meta-theatricality in the form of a pair of clowns providing narration and witty commentary on the action.
Lamentably enough, the production’s power dynamics proved resonant of our times as well, capturing the imbalance between the haves and the have-nots, whereby economically disenfranchised masses are beholden to mega-rich elites. Listening to Hamo ask the agha how he’s supposed to pay a penalty he can’t afford, one could not help conjuring up its modern-day equivalents: financially strapped members of society incurring extra charges for overdrawn bank accounts and interest rate hikes for late payments on credit cards.
While these profound themes reverberated through the production, they hardly weighed down the action, thanks to Gohar Karapetyan’s lively and upbeat staging, and helped along by Shoushig Arslanian’s vibrant costumes. Injected with humor and peppered throughout with songs, the production had the feel of a musical in which Armenian folk dancing meets the Broadway chorus number.
“Dern ou Dzaran” was often too ambitious for its cast, which featured several unseasoned members, but they were uniformly committed to their roles and brimmed with both energy and a sense of joy. At the performance I attended, the young audience was rapt for the entirety of the show’s hour-long duration, neither fidgeting in their seats nor whispering distractedly.
Karapetyan had indeed assembled a uniformly engaging cast, with noteworthy performances both in major roles (Jacque Armoudikian as one of the entertaining clowns) and supporting parts (an expressive Armine Jarahian as a flower vendor). A cohesive quartet at the center of the play, however, was key to its success: Alex Kassamanian brought an authentic innocence to Hamo, while Levon-Shant Demirjian lent Saro the right dose of mischief. Vatche Markarian was appropriately buffoonish as the agha, but it was Maral Nashalian-Arsenian who stole many a scene as the delectably villainous Nunufar.
I remain hopeful that the Hamazkayin Theatre Company will become more than the producer of an annual play, rather an incubus for the development of new works that speak to the coming generations of Armenian theatergoers and a training ground for promising performers who can tackle ever-more-challenging projects.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). He won a Broadway World L.A. Award for directing his latest work, “Constantinople.”