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The Critical Corner - 04/03/2006

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"THE PERILS OF POLITENESS LIVE ON" By BIANCA BAGATOURIAN

    Starring:
    Tom Mardirosian (from HBO's OZ)
    Nadia Mahdi
    Jeff Biehl
    Herb Rubens

    Directed by Sarah Benson
    Music composed by John Baboian


Armenian News Network / Groong
April 3, 2006

By Bedros Afeyan


"The Perils of Politeness Live On" by Bianca Bagatourian is loosely
based on the famous Armenian, satirical, 120 year old set of
thematically linked anecdotes by Hagop Baronian titled
"Kaghakavaroutian Vnassneruh", which roughly translates to Losses or
Setbacks Caused by Politeness, or better yet, What You Lose By Being
Too Polite When the World Around You Is Not.

Ms. Bagatourian, inspired by some of the vignettes that make up
Baronian's "Losses Due to Politeness," has written a play of her own
inviting Hagop Baronian to be one of its characters in every other
scene where the various vignettes are being set up and tied together.
Her play is being staged in NY at present. The performance dates are
April 2, 3 and 7, as part of a festival entitled: "The Storyteller in
Theater." The new plays being shown are by Bianca Bagatourian, Laura
Jones-Katz, Sibyl Kempson and Kristen Kosmas all past and present
students of the life-time Obie winning playwright, Mac Wellman. Tom
Mardirosian (from HBO's OZ) stars, and the music was composed by John
Baboian, a guitarist from Boston. This review is based on the text of
the play. If these performances are successful, there is a strong
chance the play might be picked up for a commercial production off
Broadway. So if you attend and like the play, say so!

First of all, by way of disclosure, this reviewer must declare that he
is a big fan of Hagop Baronian. Having read them with pleasure and
been part of productions of his plays at school while growing up, I
always found Baronian's sharp tongue, his ability to observe, pounce
and ridicule the rich and pompous, to be naturally and sympathetically
appealing. So realizing that his ideas and words are coming alive
after 120 years, and in the US at that, is a thrill and a welcomed
development! May all our unsung heroes live large again, such as
Baronian, who never saw ANY of his plays produced during his lifetime,
who was persecuted by the Ottoman authorities as well as the Armenian
ruling classes alike, subjected to censorship, forced to write
allegorical plays with animals replacing humans as heroes lest he be
jailed, forced to live in such abject poverty, without the ability to
pay his debts, that he died an old man, at the age of 48, in 1891, of
tuberculosis or consumption. The laughter he left behind, the
admonitions, warnings, social satire, the "fool! know thyself!"
warnings, the idealistic outrage he felt and voiced at the waste,
abuse and callousness of the ruling and rich classes, almost mirror
the exact opposite depths and the sequence of tragedies through which
he lived in his personal life. He was a man possessed. Hagop Baronian
has no equal in Armenian literature. Not Odian, not even William
Saroyan can come close to his satirical sketching abilities, his
dedication and his unique incorruptibility of vision and unsentimental
voice. In an almost messianic sense, he lived to become a vehicle for
social change. It is lucky that he was spared the witnessing of the
Armenian genocide which surely would have killed him that first night
of April 24, 1915, when all intellectuals and community leaders, were
rounded up by Turkish Authorities and exiled from Constantinople
(where he lived), only to be disposed of in remote locations. His
premature death spared him that indignity 24 years later. Imagine him
in a caravan with the very people he teased and criticized, being
marched to their collective death. The conversation would have been
strained indeed. He would have howled at the Turkish soldiers and
gendarmes, congratulating them at having jailed septuagenerian
satirists and alleged seditionists who, unarmed, and at such an
advanced age, apparently pose enough of a threat to the empire to
deserve being hung from a rope in a public square. What civilization!,
he would have cried out. What discipline and dedication to the Ottoman
warrior pride. And then, he would have turned his attention to the
Armenian national leaders assembled and say, so see? All your money,
all your seats in the Parliament, all your appeasement of the
authorities did you no good. You are here to be killed despite your
accommodation of the young Turks, your fascination with them and your
blind self-deception of what they thought of you and what you
represented to them all along...

Moving along, you can read more about Hagop Baronian in English, in A
Reference Guide to Modern Armenian Literature, 1500-1920, compiled
with an introduction by Kevork Bardakjian, p121-124, Wayne State
University Press, Detroit, 2000, or in Modern Armenian Drama, an
Anthology, p61-128, edited by N. Parlakian and S. P. Cowe, Columbia
University Press, New York, 2000.

Ms. Bagatourian brings us a few of Baronian's vignettes by interlacing
them with confessional or expositional (yet to stay on point, also
witty) songs all written to address the folly of politeness,
especially when it is met with brutes and unpolished individuals who
bring the whole house of hypocritical cards down...  There is now a
back story, or perhaps a forward story to Baronian's observations, in
this case. A father sits at the dinner table with his daughter, her
odar (foreigner, ie non Armenian) boyfriend, and as luck would have
it, Hagop Baronian as well. They start talking. The father has a
thick, old world accent, but strangely enough, the 170 year old Hagop
(who doesn't look a day over 48) does not! The father complains, he
pontificates black and white world views which the daughter does not
share. He constantly turns to Hagop for endorsement and encouragement,
but does not always get it. Meanwhile the father is very rude towards
Berry the boyfriend, calling him names, playing with his name,
ignoring him, etc. Now we know he is being defensive (underneath all
this aggression) with respect to his daughter and he is very afraid of
new rules and new ways being introduced into his surroundings. So
elements of contemporary social tension is there.  Then Baronian tells
another one of his anecdotes, the same actors play in these scenes,
including Hagop, and this is culminated in a song and a post mortem
word or two. This is the construction of Ms.  Bagatourian's play. Much
relies on the flawless (not over the top) execution of the songs and
the acting skills on display for the dual or multiple roles the four
actors must undertake. The images and words in the vignettes are
Baronian's (in translation), the rest is all Bianca. In fact, by
(writing and) exposing the impoliteness of the father who otherwise
spends the first scene being categorical about how much politeness
means to him, is itself a Baronian construction. The central premise
in all such stories is the parable of Jesus which instructs you to
remove the large branch from your eye before noticing the twig in the
eye of the person you are criticizing.

These well-woven examples of how mean we can be to each other while
speaking of our politeness and our proper upbringing never stops from
being a universal human predicament, it seems. Politeness is much
easier to give lip service to, to assume or believe about oneself
while atrocities are being committed under all that chatter and self
praise. It is amusing or discouraging perhaps to see just how utterly
contemporary all the observations of Baronian channeled through
Bagatourian are. When we live in a time where trumped up charges lead
us to war, such as in Iraq, when entire nations are mistreated,
bombed, neglected, allowed to be subjected to genocide, such as in
Darfour, Sudan, then just where is our polite discourse and benevolent
society? See Baronian and Bagatourian and they will make you laugh
with side splitting humor. Then on the drive home (ok, cab ride, in
NY) think of what we could do to make his comments become strange and
irrelevant some day. Alas, they are very much in need and quite
poignantly relevant today. Resurrecting a giant like Baronian is no
small feat! In fact, not being afraid of Mr. Baronian's art and talent
is itself a worthy achievement. Look out for this new voice among us;
Ms. Bianca Bagatourian has also taken on building a web presence for
Armenian theatre and cinema arts called the Armenian Dramatic Arts
Alliance or ADAA. You can find it on the web at:
http://www.armeniandrama.org/.  You will be glad that you did.



"The Perils of Politeness Live On" by Bianca Bagatourian plays at
the Classic Stage Company in New York on:
    Sunday April 2, 5:00 pm
    Monday April 3, 8:30 pm
    Friday April 7, 10:00 pm

Classic Stage Company is at:
136 East 13th Street, New York, NY 10003
(Between 3rd & 4th Avenues, just southeast of Union Sq.)


--
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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