BY ARAM KOUYOUMDJIAN
Performances of exceptional caliber were the defining feature of the Armenian Theater Festival organized by the Hamazkayin Educational & Cultural Society last week. The triumphs belonged to the talented ranks of the “Sos Sargsyan” State Theater Company of Armenia, which made its U.S. debut less than a month after its illustrious namesake passed away at the age of 84.
Eleven performances of four different productions were staged over the course of five days spanning October 16 to 20. Nearly half the performances were of “Anpan Hourin,” a dramatization with music of Hovhannes Toumanyan’s tale about a young woman prone to laziness. Over 1,400 students from a dozen Armenian schools were bussed in for daytime performances of “Anpan Hourin” and of “44 Astichani Vra,” roughly translated as “44 Degrees.”
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As the opening night and gala night selection, “44 Degrees” lent the festival its gravitas. The play by Asdghik Simonyan (based on a story by Tigran Hayrapetian) was an oddly captivating – and, at times, absurdist – musing on the themes of emigration and repatriation.
The three-character play revolves around Mgro and Siranush, repatriates from the U.S. to a rural village in Armenia, and Garabed, the couple’s dear friend. Mgro tends bees while Siranush delivers honey, even as the village around them slowly empties of its denizens amidst a wave of emigration. In denial over what is happening, Mgro presses his wife into continuing to deliver honey to the now-empty homes of former neighbors.
The couple’s life is upended, however, when Garabed himself decides to leave. Recognizing the desperate circumstances which she and Mgro are facing, Siranush longs to return to the States, but Mgro insists that they stay.
Rich and complicated themes resonate through Simonyan’s script, which boasts several lovely, lyrical passages and characters whose vulnerability makes them compelling. Still, a number of flaws attend the writing, which is slow to gather momentum. It is virtually impossible to believe that Mgro and Siranush are urban transplants; in fact, it’s hard to fathom that they’ve ever been out of their village. Mgro seems child-like at times, and the gender dynamics that define his relationship with Siranush are downright traditional (read: stereotypical).
The script is suffused with references to Samuel Beckett’s existential masterpiece “Waiting for Godot” – a lone tree in the middle of the stage being the most obvious among them. The landscape of “44 Degrees” is not quite as barren as that of “Godot” but is destined for similar desolation. “I am waiting for people,” Mgro declares optimistically; yet, as “Godot” has taught us, they will not show, and he will pass his days harboring hope in vain.
If “44 Degrees” were meant to be a lamentation of emigration and a celebration of repatriation, it hardly conveyed that message effectively; instead, Mgro’s decision came across as foolhardy, if not actually delusional, and Siranush’s last-minute acceptance of it strained credulity.
The production’s feats rested with laser-sharp direction by Zohrab Beg-Kasbarenz and memorable performances by all three cast members. Varsham Gevorgyan’s vivid and enchanting portrayal of Mgro was matched by Tatev Ghazaryan’s nuanced and touching take on Siranush, while Karen Khachatryan provided quietly strong support as Garabed.
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Another top-notch cast took over for “Sale,” a tragicomic adaptation by Vigen Stepanyan of Alexander Galin’s “Retro.”
At that play’s center is Artashes, an elderly widower, who has moved from his rural home to the city in order to live with his daughter, Rita, and his son-in-law, Armand, an art and antiques dealer. Artashes finds his new living arrangements untenable – his relationship with Rita is strained and with Armand disdainful – and longs to go home.
Hoping he can pawn off the old man on a new wife, Armand arranges to have three prospective mates visit Artashes on the same evening: Nazig, a former nurse in a psych ward; Anahid, a teacher; and Madlene, a one-time dancer who still moves with the sweep of a diva. Rather than keeping their appointed times, however, all three women turn up at once.
At this point, “Sale” blissfully forgoes the usual formula of farce – slammed doors, outrageous lies, and ever-escalating chaos – and opts for a different, far more interesting path. Artashes and the women form a deep bond as they down a few drinks, share stories of grief and loss, and indulge in some fanciful dancing.
Pleasantly surprising, “Sale” offers an alternately funny and heartbreaking examination of loneliness, while questioning whether happiness lies in the material comforts chased by Rita and Armand, or in the companionship Artashes finds with his lady friends. The writing grew heavy-handed and sappy on occasion, but the cast, masterfully led by Vanik Mkrtchyan as Artashes, kept the plot engaging. Mkhitar Avetisyan brought the right balance of charm and smarm to Armand, Arev Santrosyan exhibited wonderfully understated but precise comic timing as Nazig, while Karine Janjughazyan stole scenes with her delectably over-the-top turn as Madlene.
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The “Variety Show” that closed the festival proved its least successful offering. Comprised, for the most part, of solo performances, it played like a talent show rather than a cohesive piece of entertainment.
Part of the problem was the ensemble’s attempt to pay tribute to its late leader, Sos Sargsyan, who was a steady presence in the show, through video segments and voice recordings. That effort was commendable, but the show went off track in trying to balance, quite jarringly, moments of reverence with “fun” pieces. The combination made for an unfocused jumble of songs, recitations, an overlong abstract performance, and a grating skit about kitchen appliances. Still, there were highlights, such as Mkhitar Avetisyan channeling Charles Aznavour and Karine Janjughazyan performing jazz tunes of her own composition in her uniquely nasal and gravelly voice.
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Within a few short days, the festival afforded Armenians in Los Angeles an extraordinary opportunity to become acquainted and develop a sense of familiarity with the “Sos Sargsyan” company and its members. I had the pleasure of joining them at one post-performance gathering, where Armine Poghosyan performed an a cappella version of the Armenian folk song “Horovel,” as the entire company joined in to harmonize. The goosebump-inducing moment captured in a nutshell the creative spirit and talent of the ensemble.
I wish the troupe had been afforded more opportunities to interact with audiences (through structured Q&A sessions, for instance) and with local theater artists. The interactions could have led to fruitful and ongoing cultural exchanges, rather than an isolated, all-too-brief visit. Nonetheless, the visit was an excellent reminder of the heights that Armenian professional theater regularly achieves. It certainly raised the bar for the Southland.
Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting (“The Farewells”) and directing (“Three Hotels”). His latest work is an adaptation of “Ancient Gods.”