BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
The long-awaited Raffi and Tamar Manoukian Performing Arts Center, the stylish new venue with state-of-the-art amenities, is finally ready for use, and the AGBU Satamian Theatre Group’s latest production opened there the first weekend in November.
What theatrical work had the troupe staged for the occasion? A newly-commissioned piece? A world premiere by an up-and-coming playwright? An innovative take on an Armenian classic?
If you thought, even for a second, that the answer to any of those questions could be “yes,” then you are not familiar with the Satamian Group, a throwback ensemble devoted to comedies that are equal parts stale and mind-numbing.
Satamian Group’s selection was “Sdakhosuh” (The Liar), an 18th-century farce by Carlo Goldoni, which, according to press materials, launched AGBU’s Vahram Papazian Theatre Group in Beirut back in 1959, the Ardashad Theatre Group in New York in 1978, as well as the Ardavazt Theatre Group (as the current Satamian Group was originally called) in 1981. Why this Italian trifle has been integral to launching not one, not two, but three AGBU theater groups is not for me to explain. Suffice it to say that it has been retrieved from some age-old vault and dusted off for another round of service.
“The Liar” is built around the commedia dell’arte tradition of stock characters (such as greedy/foolish old men or devious servants). At the play’s center is Lelio, the son of a wealthy merchant, who arrives in Venice with little money and checks into a hotel (on credit) across from one Dr. Balanzoni’s house. One of the doctor’s daughters, Rosoura, is being wooed by a secret admirer named Florindo, who sends her gifts and poems – that is, until Lelio, representing himself to be a marquis, claims to be the source behind the serenades and tries to gain Rosoura’s favor instead. The situation quickly grows complicated, ensnaring Rosoura’s sister, maid, their various suitors, and Lelio’s manservant, Arlecchino (or Harlequin), and requiring Lelio to tell an ever-escalating series of lies – which he euphemistically describes as “new discoveries” – to keep his head above water.
Given the times in which we live, where “alternative facts” are offered in the place of truth, “The Liar” could have been a devastating satire on present-day events, but the production can’t be bothered with current relevance and makes no effort in that regard. Instead, with its outmoded patriarchal themes – depicting women as marriageable commodities – it proves altogether tone-deaf to the zeitgeist.
The production isn’t entirely devoid of humor – just for the most part. It is partly weighed down by the fact that a third of the cast is comprised of neophytes inexperienced with comic timing and delivery, while another third is comprised of Satamian veterans relying on their usual shtick. Only a trio of actors rises above the material: Aram Muradian, who overcomes a tentative start to offer a nimble and engaging take on Lelio in the second act; Peter Nishan, whose impressive turn as Arlecchino is a kinetic romp of physical contortions and high-jinx; and Artur Margaryan who manages to steal scenes while playing a statue – yes, a statue – which comes to life at opportune moments to impart loaded commentary by way of a single word or gesture.
Bookended by random dances, the production looks out of place in the sleek Manoukian space. There’s no lighting design to speak of, and the set looks amateurish on the elegant stage. Without question, the company will have to considerably up its game to deserve its new home.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His most recent work was the world premiere production of “William Saroyan: The Unpublished Plays in Performance” this fall.