BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
Of late, the Armenian Theatre Company has been unstoppable in its output of new productions. It’s mainly been focusing on shorter works: in April, a trio of one-acts by Harold Pinter; in May, a pair of “sentimental” Armenian plays. This month, it has revived Kariné Khodikian’s “Oruh Ter Sharnagvum E” (The Day Continues Still), an hour-long piece about the turbulent and fiery relationship of Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, performed in its original Armenian and in an English translation. The translation is by Aramazd Stepanian, who also directs both versions and portrays Diego in all English performances and in one of four Armenian performances – the one I caught on Saturday, June 16.
As I had mentioned in a previous review, this aggressive pace by the company and Stepanian’s tendency to overextend himself have been yielding productions that lack polish. “The Day Continues Still” suffers similar shortcomings (line struggles among them) but has much to commend it – chiefly, a smart script by Khodikian and a sensational performance by Inga Stamboltsyan as Frida.
The play depicts Frida in her various incarnations: wife, artist, revolutionary. It opens in a cantina, where Frida gets into a heated discussion with the proprietress (Lyudmila Grigoryan) about love, marriage, and art. It becomes immediately clear that the play is not altogether naturalistic, since the proprietress, while conversing with Frida, references events that occurred after the artist’s death.
It’s a compelling scene, not least for the fact that such a prolonged exchange between two women is a rarity in Armenian theater. The dialogue Khodikian has scripted for them is saucy, yet substantial.
Eventually, the cantina proprietress transforms into Frida’s sister, Cristina, who was a nude model for Diego and one of his paramours. Diego makes his appearance well into the play, at which point the conversation turns to the topic of rampant marital infidelity – engaged in callously by both spouses and used as fuel for art. “Monsters!” yells Cristina at them for making each other suffer yet refusing (or being unable) to let each other go. Suffering is sublimated into the artists’ paintings; in Frida’s case, pain is not just emotional but, due to a crippling accident, physical as well. The accident has left her bedbound, forcing her to paint her way out of the pain.
Khodikian’s edgy script brims with attitude and is modern in its structure and sensibility. It is a feminist tract that provides a rich role for a lead actress, and Stamboltsyan is superb in the role, balancing brashness and sarcasm with heartache and disappointment – the consummate portrayal of a tortured free spirit. Her winning performance alone makes the production worthwhile.
Grigoryan is a worthy sparring partner for Stamboltsyan, but Stepanian seems out of his element in this particular role. Typical for the company, production values are wanting, but projections of Frida’s paintings go a long way in adding visual texture and even operating as a character of their own.
Up next for the company is a piece by Rabindranath Tagore, to be followed by George Bernard Shaw’s “The Millionairess,” two Japanese plays, and Levon Shant’s “Ancient Gods”; whether such expansive choices will yield an ever-intriguing body of work or just a mish-mash of confused programming remains to be seen.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His next production, “William Saroyan’s Theater of Diaspora: The Unpublished Plays in Performance,” is slated to have its world premiere this fall.