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PATRIOTS OR MAD MEN CAUGHT MOVING THE NATIONAL DISCOURSE

PATRIOTS OR MAD MEN CAUGHT MOVING THE NATIONAL DISCOURSE
PAST PLATITUDES AND PRETENSE

Armenian News Network / Groong
February 12, 2009

By Bedros Afeyan


"Out of the Cage," is a collection of "sramid" or sharp and witty  
sketches by the renown Armenian theatrical ensemble that is built  
around the considerable talents of Vahe Berberian. This band of brave  
Armenian performers dare to repeatedly skewer myths and legends,  
stereotypes and comfortable self-medicating dosages of delusion which  
usually take the form of banner headlines in party organs, fervent and  
melodramatic official speeches, oft repeated and hackneyed slogans,  
categorically stated national goals and other crutches which divert  
our eyes from what is really going on and where we are clearly headed.

These strong voices of satire and caricature, absurdist exaggeration
and farce, playfulness and seriousness of purpose all meld into a
series of 11 or 12 skits and vignettes where ancestral heroes, Gods
and goons, tough guys and mice, Satan's helpers and Pakistani chanters,
troubled Japanese Samurai fed up with Tofu and an unimaginative
cooking, nagging wife, meet and greet Armenian/Turkish negotiators who
will settle their disagreements regarding the genocide and the
reparations that are due, but can not stop insulting each other,
remaining hyper-suspicious of each other, biting, scratching, and
resettling on old notions and convictions, with no progress but the
spectacle that this can create. Original ideas on how to recover
Armenian Soil, gate keepers of hell rejecting a candidate for he has
simply not sinned enough, and many more Monty Python-esque settings
and sensibilities are served up in these sketches that are a must see,
at least as far as this reviewer is concerned.

You can do so next weekend, February 21 and 22 at 7 PM and 6 PM,  
respectively at Walter & Laurel Karabian Hall, TCA A. Dickranian  
School, 1200 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038. For tickets  
visit http://www.itsmyseat.com/OOC.html or call 818-941-4800.

The brilliant conceit around which the piece is constructed is that  
these are just inmates of an Armenian mental asylum especially for  
artists and intellectuals which was necessitated in the late  
nineteenth century in Istanbul, then the Middle East and finally  
resuscitated in Fresno and LA by the mid twentieth century. This  
conceit of a set of playful crazies, being shepherded by an old  
psychiatrist and his staff who come on stage whenever convenient to  
tell them to "cut it out," and thus allowing them to "keep it short"  
theatrically, is a useful if obvious trick. And as if this is not  
enough, they also have an announcer of sorts who is also clearly one  
of them but aware of who and where he is! Who is he presenting this  
evening spectacle to? Other patients of the asylum presumably, and are  
we those other patients, perhaps?

This in fact is the best angle of all. Our role as Armenians in the  
diaspora, living near our churches, schools and meeting halls, our  
athletic clubs and scout troupes, our women's associations and relief  
societies, and in the case of LA, especially, living near our  
specialty grocery stores, bakeries and restaurants as well. But who  
are we as a people? How are we self-organized? What are the driving  
forces and their motivations and instruments to attract and retain an  
illusive Armenian soul, an Armenian identity, to seduce or forcefully  
transmit that seed, that mythic urge, that melancholy call of the  
Crane, in song and spirit, alone like Gomidas, ostracized by his  
fellow (not as gifted) monks, misunderstood by a rich and thriving  
Armenian public unwilling to fathom or simply unaware of the impending  
doom to come at the turn of the 20th century, and after seeing the  
beginning of the genocide, Gomidas' silence, lunacy, refusal to speak  
Armenian, fear that any day the Turks will come and take him away  
again. Silence and illucidity in France, silence, and death.

Gomidas' fate is very much on every Armenian intellectual's mind. What  
happened to that sensitive soul should and could happen to the rest of  
us. Even now, even here. So why not move the story along IN the  
asylum, in the hell or purgatory of doubt and uncertain identity. Why  
not sit and make our Kebob's here? Admit that this is where we have  
landed. Admit that we must move forward from here, not through denial  
and not through thin decorations with Mount Ararad on the wall or  
Sasountsi Tavit on his high horse, deflecting the humid, pealing pain  
of a nation of immigrants and outsiders, clinging to their fast fading  
memories of a collective self. Yes, from within the walls of the  
asylum, Armenians can shout and declaim! They can demand and revolt!  
But the gates are shut, the perimeter is monitored, dogs and guards  
are on the alert. They will let you have your annual summer picnics  
and Easter processions, as if you were on the outside and this was  
your free will. But the cognisenti know that something is just not  
right. There are confining walls, built up by history and death  
marches, organized caravans of dispersal, loss of stifled village life  
with all new choices and perils of self-redefinition and self- 
realization in lands of plenty and lands of new rules, and a whole new  
asylum for the memories that do not die.

Vahe Berberian and his troupe of actors perform very heart-warming  
skits under these circumstances. The rest of us in the audience are  
well served to think about the absurdist stretches of an already  
improbable existence that is ours. With Armenian speaking or garbled  
speech Samurai and an Armenian translator with a set script. With a  
tree hiding a prompter who has to lead Levon Shant's conflicted  
priest's confessor from Ancient Gods, or New Doubts or New Gods and  
Goblins, how to deal with oneself in stormy doubts and bouts, in  
garbled lines and sighs, in absurdistan and calamitistan, in  
lamentistan and guffawistan, all in some fistan or koknots, a hot babe  
in a straight jacket crisscrossing the stage looking for her Persian  
Armenian husband who has changed his name to Claude, who acts as if he  
is a French Armenian, as if he is not married, as if he is free to  
come and go, in this very same asylum. We have Gomidas denying his  
roots and reality, his ethnomusicalogical and composer's talent  
erased. Hiding behind a meaningless capitulation, a forced and  
undignified descent from grace.

And then there are the skits themselves:

Sassountsi Tavit yev hink klkhani hreshe [Sasountsi Tavit and the Five  
Headed Monster] (Sassountsi Tavit - Chris Bedian, Hresh - Sako  
Berberian, Levon Shant Demirjian, Shahe Mankerian, Harout Dedeyan and  
Salpy Yerdemian)

A five headed beast, all our political parties perhaps, all our  
talking heads perhaps? Eventually, the toughest goon in this lot,  
kills the rest (having killed two others in the past). Sound familiar?  
And what can Sasountsi Tavit do confronted with this beast? At first,  
he wants to slay the beast and become famous and dominant. What young  
rebel would want any less? But soon, he learns that this is not a  
romantic world. That he is in fact a coward. And this goon will have  
his way and so Sasountsi Tavit must take flight and try and establish  
his savior's credentials, his attempt to forge a better Armenian  
reality, some other day.

-Japontsiner [Japanese Ones] (Vahe Berberian, Ara Madzounian,  
Tranlator - Sako Berberian, Hresh - Shahe Menkerian)

Here, a Samurai comes to complain to his father-in-law that his wife  
is driving him nuts by cooking everything JUST with tofu. Tofu Kebab,  
Tofu Dolma, Tofu chikeufte, even! Who has heard of such a thing? His  
father-in-law agrees. But when he tries to return the bride back over  
to her family, a fight ensues. The goon from the previous sketch shows  
up and we are allowed to end this one with a juxtaposed Monty Python- 
esque sensibility and continuity tricks, all rolled into one big  
Shushi, Mashi.

- Jenig and Dr. Loris (Helena Grigorian and Morris Kouyoumdjian)

Here is that hot babe, like T. S. Eliot's "Women Come and Go Speaking  
of Michelangelo" in Prufrock, now chased by a white overcoat wearing  
and stethoscope bedangled shrink. She wants her husband back. His  
identity back. But is her plight pertinent? We don't care. She looks  
good and has a brilliant smile!

- Ajuynner ( Vachig Der-Sarkissian, Harout Dedeyan, Sako Berberian,  
Levon Shant Demirjian)

Taking human remains of dead fathers who longed and pined to visit  
Yerevan, to see Hayastan, how can that be done? One young faithful but  
pragmatic son comes to a "Remains Repatriation Agency" and asks  
whether his father who has now expired (Bring out Your Dead! From  
Monty Python's Holy Grail comes to mind) can be taken to Yerevan and  
his remains brought back for a reasonable price. The Mexicans around  
the corner have promised to do it for $2000. How much can you do it  
for? But is your father really dead?... Yes, yes, he's dead. He never  
got to see Armenia while alive. Let's try and do it now, before it is  
too late, but for a good price.

The three players in this skit come form different parts of the middle  
east and have entirely different vernaculars and this causes endless  
pit and pratfalls, endless slips and slides, till the meaning of the  
sketch becomes not so much about land and death and pining about both  
but an implied battle cry: (Armenian) People, Can't We Just Get Along?

- Sahe Ververian (Vahe Berberian)

This is a masterpiece. The "lawyer" or national advocate in a cheap,  
plaid, wrinkled suite yet full of legalese splendor, offers a hot and  
urgent plan whereby we would travel to Turkey, the Eastern provinces,  
and simply make a grab for the soil in plastic bags from our ancestral  
homeland. Three to four bags per patriot who will participate in this  
heist, should do the trick. He offers us what to say to the export  
control agents at the airport in Istanbul so that they will let us out  
with the bags. He has thought of everything including how these lands  
can be immediately repatriated to Yerevan where they can be forged  
into a second story to the city and that story can be leased out for a  
fee, making the plan pay for itself, if not make net profit

-Hai Trkagan Mejlis [Armenian Turkish Reconciliation Committee Games]  
(Turks - Sako Berberian, Henrik Mansourian Chris Bedian, Armenians -  
Ara Baghdoyan, Shahe Mankerian, Vachig Der-Sarkissian, Morris  
Kouyoumdjian and Levon Shant Demirjian)

An earlier version of this is available on YouTube. The whole concept  
is just brilliant. It is a recurring game that the patients play,  
apparently. They pretend to be Turkish and Armenian negotiators taking  
on the thorny and delicate issue of reparations, restitution of  
dignity and honor, a recognition of the Armenian Genocide,  
forgiveness, reconciliation, etc. The wit here is hyper-effective. The  
multilingual jokes aplenty. The sensibilities are too well captured  
for comment. Look up Turkish Armenian reconciliation committee on  
YouTube and see for yourself  or go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XjO0vx97BfQ
One of the inspired lines is the complaint by those playing the Turks,  
as to why they have to play the role of Turks? Why can't they be  
Armenians, for a change? I remember this kind of debate with my  
brothers and our neighbors when it came to playing Cowboys and  
Indians, in our yard or on the balcony.

Second Act

-Hayots Ayroutsi/Caballeros Armenios {Armenian Knights] (Sbarabed -  
Ara Madzounian, Confused Soldier- Vachid Der-Sarkissian, Cavalry -  
Shahe Mankerian, Sako Berberian, Henrik Mansourian, Harout Dedeyan,  
Shahe Boyadjian, Chris Bedian, Levon Shant Demirjian)

Here we have the Cavalry being talked into battle, being wound up and  
being given marching orders, as it were, until they learn that the  
enemy is very near and disperse. This is more physical comedy than  
cerebral and is a good way in after a 15 minute break. It is also very  
heavily influenced by Monthy Python and works in its element very well.

-Interview with Baron Hagop Baronian  (Shahe Mankerian, Ara Baghdoyan)

This is a cerebral sketch about the perils and insurmountable  
obstacles that face any attempts to redraw maps and reconstitute  
national boundaries. An absurd premise flips the problem around and in  
a mock television interview, we are led to hear how easy it all is,  
how simply one can just redraw, resize, rescale and redress centuries  
of injustice and conflict... The skit forces you to ask, just how is  
this supposed to be done, jackass! Not this way, right? Also Monty  
Python-esque and very effective.

-Nor Asdvadzner/Hin Gasgadzner (Ara Madzounian, Chris Bedian,  
Hoosharar - Sako Berberian, Throwing up in the back - Levon Shant  
Demirjian)

Here is that two monk, confessor and confessee, a tree with a  
prompter, an angry prompter and a dumb director/confessor sketch. It  
has great possibilities. The ideas and parody are that of Levon  
Shant's Ancient Gods, Hin Asdvadzner. The slipping out of text,  
intentional, or supposedly inadvertent, makes for many comic  
possibilities. This sketch can be developed much further. It is very  
meaty and not yet fully explored. It is just a wonderful wellspring of  
artistic stretching and somersaulting. Hope this does get revisited in  
the future. They have but scratched the surface of this gold mine, it  
seems.

- Yerangouyn (Vahe Berberian, Henrik Mansourian, Vachig Der- 
Sarkissian, Morris Kouyoumdjian, Sako Berberian, Melissa Mazman,  
Harout Dedeyan, Helena Grigorian)

Here the possibilities are also endless. We have a new organization  
known as Triangle. Not tri-color, not three-headed, just Triangle The  
three members of this organization are supposed to be equal but are  
not, they follow Robert's rule of order and proper procedures during  
their meetings but are not far from absurdity at every moment. In this  
episode, they are looking for an official anthem for their  
triangulations. So they have invited some composers to offer options  
from which they will choose. The killer is the one offered by Claude,  
who is our Gomidas stand in, after all, remember? He does an Aznavour  
knock off with brilliant wording but just following Aznavour's song La  
Boheme, musically. The members revolt. It is not original enough, they  
claim. Claude is heart broken. Another composer offers a quadrangular  
solution song, but is summarily dismissed just as he was the previous  
year. A triangle is a triangle, after all. In a revealing twist, the  
psychiatrist comes in to offer a ditty (he is an inmate acting as a  
doctor in the evening's program, after all), but he is a horrible  
singer and his composition is trite. Then, the Turkish translator,  
another hot babe, arrives (too late for the TARC skit) and she has a  
song to offer. That too is rejected and the cycle of searching but  
coming up empty, rigid demands and no solutions, continues.

-Tjokhk (Salpy Yerdemian, Ara Madzounian, Vahe Berberian, Levon Shant  
Demirjian)

A hapless, tall, thin, white Eastern-garbed, soft spoken simpleton  
(miyamid) arrives at the gates of hell sent down by Gabriel the angel  
but without the proper paper work. Even Gabriel did not know what to  
do with this fellow. Alas, he can not enter hell. He has not sinned  
enough back on earth. He tries to pretend that he has and keeps lying  
more and more extensively to pass the illusive threshold. But it is  
too late. Lying now does not help. He should have lied before he got  
up here, or at least killed someone. But my friends are all in there!  
Comes the cry, the plea, the begging. Its no good. Nothing doing!  
Comes the reply. Meanwhile many others are ushered in. Finally, he too  
is led in, but provisionally, the gatekeeper will keep her eyes on  
him. She hopes he does not become an embarrassment to her... Hell, at  
least, is temporarily made available. A small but significant victory  
perhaps.

-Peshawar Ensemble  (Singer - Vachig Der-Sarkissian, Vahe Berberian,  
Drums - Ara Madzounian, Shant (I forgot his last name) Accordion - Ara  
Dabanjian, Harout Dedeyan, Choir - Sako Berberian, Shahe Mankerian,  
Levon Shant Demirjian, Chris Bedian)

This is brilliant and mind blowing on many levels. Parts of it are  
also available on YouTube. Please catch it on
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRWmetCuurU&feature=PlayList&p=451EC3412B716EDF&playnext=1&index=2
and see if you can stop yourself from laughing and feeling uneasy at  
the same time. Every song sounds authentically Pakistani, keeps on  
going in its expanded musical tones, as if it is a wild  
improvisational number, only to be morphed into a simple, Armenian pop  
song! They sing that and continue the cycle again with the quarter  
tones lost in Western twelve tone music, they froth themselves up into  
a frenzy and over and over again show the close connection musically  
between supposedly this foreign culture, this muslim, far eastern,  
strange collective brand of self-expression inevitably morphing to pop  
trite fare. The goal might be to show that we are all the same, we all  
sound the same, feel the same, dream the same, and only hate and  
discriminate seemingly differently.

Deep down inside much more should unite us than help destroy our  
humanity. Deep down, Armenian or not, lost in the diaspora or  
resurrected on YouTube, we are here, we can roar, we can laugh, we can  
face down our absurdities and who knows, perhaps one day, rise above  
them as well, as a second story, right above old Yerevan and rent the  
space out for profit and for national rejuvenation. If only we could  
find enough plastic bags to transport those morsels of ancestral land,  
three or four bags per working patriot, to their final resting place,  
or take them there for a tour, through La Boheme, under the stars of  
Peshawar, peshkirjee's all, or dawning Sharwals still, sitting in the  
Asylum, eating mezza, before curfew, before strong medication is  
administered by TV, by the daily grind, that makes for an interesting  
conversation with good strong Turkish/Armenian coffee in the morning.


--
Dr. Bedros Afeyan is a theoretical physicist who works and lives in
the Bay area with his wife, Marine. He writes in Armenian and in
English and also paints and sculpts. Samples of his work can be found
on the web by clicking on his personal web pages at:
http://208.177.152.139/

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