Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 10/04/2010

BEAST ON THE MOON IN WEST HOLLYWOOD IN 2010

Armenian News Network / Groong
October 4, 2010

By Bedros Afeyan


The new production of Beast on the Moon at the Marilyn Monroe Theatre at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center, at 7936 Santa Monica Blvd in West Hollywood, is an original take on this celebrated and more than fifteen-year-old play by Richard Kalinoski. It is directed by Paul Lampert and stars John Cirigliano as Vincent and narrator, Olga Konstantulakis as Seta Tomassian, Robert Hallak, the understudy, as Aram Tomassian in the production to be reviewed here, and Zadran Wali in that role normally.

Their's is a convincing and original reading of the play and not a repeat of older productions which trail blazed before it. A strong cast, an intimate 99 seat Marilyn Monroe theater, spare and potent staging and lighting make for a harrowing and satisfying theatrical experience as the pain of the witnessing of genocide coexists with the urgency of adaptation to a new land, to a new era, to new roles to play in response to the cards the main characters have been dealt genetically and socio-politically.

A richly brewed story such as Beast on the Moon can be given many readings and interpretations. There are no straight lines and simple connect the dots here. Instead, we have a complicated and thick story space which is impenetrable to any large measure due to incomplete information, deracinated roots, severed connections, murdered ancestors, mayhem, orphanages and massive displacement. After all that, seldom can personal stories be pieced together smoothly or well. Yet the need to do so is even more compelling and life sustaining than not. Herein lies the tension between self-affirming lies, delusions, hear-say, categorically held truths, and fortresses built around mole hills of memories and smells of souvenirs of parents or siblings long visited by the scimitars of Ottoman Turkish soldiers in their native Armenia, violently depopulated of its Armenian citizenry.

Aram and Seta, photographer and picture bride, meet in 1921, in Wisconsin. A strange place for a pair of Armenian orphans to build a new life with each other, one in his twenties, the other merely 16. These are two orphans with incomplete memories of their parents and villages and value systems. Yet they are most certainly orphans with the vivid memories of genocide, of substitute older sister rape, of impalings and religion mocking street crucifixions. Two young souls with loose command of English and strong wills to survive and get on in the world, carrying the burdens of survivor guilt, at least subconsciously.

America is the epitome of cultures with no emphasis placed on memory, replaced instead by the overwhelming urge of its citizenry to redefine themselves, to restart their lives and identities as often and as colorfully as they wish. You become in America and you never dwell on what you were. You are what you say you are. This is a sort of freedom, an unlayered looseness and a floating and ill-lit sense of history and reality, other cultures would find abhorrent and undesirable, even if secretly they remain jealous of its practitioners. America pulls itself up from its own bootstraps and makes new knots and new worlds of itself. That much is given, at least in theory. But what happens if new citizens, new immigrants want to retain a vague, tattered view of their past? What happens if the safety of being away from the barbaric Turk is welcomed but a severing of ties with parents and grandparents is not adopted and is held on to even more tightly? What happens if what you think might have been expected of you by your ancestors consumes you and becomes the only basis for reality that seems permanent or valid to you? How must you behave in this new land of flashing lights and big cars and smart dressed citizenry always on the go?

Richard Kalinoski has considered these questions and woven a very rich and textured story of personal struggles found in one such pair of orphans, come to America, but never losing track of the universal elements that accompany such a saga.

Beast on the Moon is about the transformations that visit us as we attempt to stay put and live an ordered and pre-planned life. A man, a boy really, who has to go it alone, with no direct contact with father figures or village wise men, lays down the law to his picture bride. She, a feisty, pure soul, wants to obey, but lives in fear and trauma. She knows that she is in part, the living dead. With so much calamity and pain witnessed before the age of ten, with such destruction and denigration witnessed in thick layers of screams and tears and blood and innards, how then can you make sense of a planned life to be had?

Their tensions and attempts at redemption, as individuals, as Armenians, as immigrants, as lovers, as potential parents, as sons and daughters, as nightmare repositories, sing loud and clear in Beast on the Moon. And there is yet another orphan to consider too. A young Italian boy, Vincent, with a dead father and an institutionalized mother. He is up to no good and stealing, living on the street. He is unhappy at the orphanage and he too has survival instincts, he too wants love and guidance to move forward in life in this land of plenty.

Kalinoski knows how to use isolated, bare symbols of identity, whether it be an old coin, a precious stamp, a raggedy doll made extemporaneously by a lost mother, a lost father's coat or a family portrait picture with severed heads, to show the bonds we make with idolatry, with possession, with obsession, with tents of neatly ordered symbols of truth to protect us against old enemies and perceived perils that encircle us outside their bounds. Kalinoski knows that we lay down the steps ourselves to march up the ladder of wisdom and comprehension. That it is not done for us. That there is risk and defeat that awaits us. Disappointments fill the room with traps and trinkets which we will not be able to resist or overturn, and yet we survive. That magic potion of human potential is what he wants to tap and tap it, he does in Beast on the Moon.

Aram and Seta do not want the same things. They are not wired the same way. They have each other and yet they have nothing at all, really. They exist and survive due to biological urges which society neither enforces nor balances due to lost identity and lost purpose handed down through generations with proud traditions. What are incompletely formed Armenians to do in an America where all ancient traditions are best checked at the door and new garb, new hats, new smiles and new trends chased with never even a look backwards or hence? Aram and Seta find a way forward and all is well at the end, but the trajectory is not smooth, is not straight, and thus makes for great drama, poetry and carries wonderful psychological weight.

Aram and Seta want to survive, march on and supplant the cards they have been affixed by history. Their instincts and adaptation strategies are constantly evolving throughout the play. Beast on the Moon is a chronicle of these transformations and a study of their potential origins and triggering points. It requires great acting ability to contain and display these changes with the sparse dialogue that is Kalinoski's style. Simple, direct exchanges tend to blow up on the participants since they are not moving together but exploring past each other, and through the thick fog of accumulated despair and foreboding. And since starvation and depravity during one's childhood can have consequences later vis a vis fertility and reproductive health, a whole saga of recriminations and suspicions and shame come raining down on the Tomassian household as well. The doll will be hurled against the Family portrait, the camera will be an imposition, an iron will be wielded as a power tool, yelling and screaming and howling and failing will come jumping through the walls again and again. Here, Vincent will be the ultimate salvation, but Seta will need him first, and Seta will nurture that path, while Aram resists and ignores and sabotages and finally sees the wisdom of her ways.

Life, survival, identity and the jagged edge crosses we bear, assemble in a folk dance of symbolic ecstasy, in Beast on the Moon. Sometimes happy, often sad, turbulent and disappointed, a climb away from trauma to a life whose happiness is unplanned obtains. Young Vincent, becomes our old narrator, come home to revisit the improvised cauldron where he was protectively raised. The phoenix of Turkish atrocities against Armenians culminating in a genocide, is embodied in an Italian orphan in Wisconsin finding a loving home made charming and warm by two Armenian orphans in turn, who lost their own parents before they were old enough to resist the enemy and fight for freedom from the yoke of tyranny and degradation.

The acting chops displayed in the portrayal of the three characters of Beast on the Moon were considerable. Most effective of all was John Cirigliano whose young Vincent had a physicality and an authenticity of awkward movement and self-expression which were pitch perfect. His narrator role was nothing spectacular nor was it meant to be. Young Vincent, however was imminently compelling and rich in force, even though his is the least of the three parts. He stole the show, I might as well come out and say it. This was not the case with the two productions I have seen over a decade ago with the author in attendance in San Francisco, where Seta was the central character and the two men hovered around her and showed us how her life changes from an Armenian orphan to an American mother and keeper of a household.

Olga Konstantulakis is exceedingly beautiful and elegant in her skin. She is tall and imposing physically. Her voice was tender and strongly searching for the diction of a fifteen year old immigrant who scene after scene becomes more mature and finds her place and adapts her surroundings to her needs as cruel barren realities concerning child bearing assault her. Olga's respect for Aram, her fear, her apprehension, were all visible and on cue. She did not dominate any scene. She was humble and giving as an actress, allowing the story to take center stage and not her own personal beauty and stage presence, which would have been trivial to achieve, had she not been the mature and sensitive actress that she is, putting the play ahead in the spotlight.

Robert Hallak, whose real family name, changed about a century ago at a Catholic Orphanage, is Melkonian, did a superb job as an autocratic Aram, insisting that life make sense. That they repopulate Armenia, one slain family at a time. To be his own father and to have Seta be his own mother and perhaps three children to carry on the family. That is not what happens. And his insistence that this simple goal be dominant gives sway to a bright wife who finds a more workable solution.

He grows up and he grows nearer to her and this fusion of an arranged marriage to one of deep feeling between husband and wife, from being called Mr. Tomassian, to being yelled at and opposed in debate, is risky but wonderful theater. Robert and Olga, act and fuse as a young couple drifting into a more solid reality, and this they pull off very well, indeed.

The play is sparse and scene/image driven. Kalinoski is not a verbose expositor of inner dialogues and torment. He tries to bring it all out and have the audience fill in the gaps. Now, after Ararat, the movie, after Hrant Dink's assassination and Turkish citizens walking the streets of Istanbul carrying banners saying we are all Armenians today, things are different than they were in 1995, when Beast on the Moon was the first serious high visibility play which focused on the details of the Armenian Genocide and the life burdens that propagate through the generations of survivors that follow them. It is not for nothing that we say Genocide is a crime against humanity as a whole. As serious or engaged citizens of the world, we must all stay vigilant not to let this basest of human instincts run wild over populations unequipped to resist the barbarism of the pride filled superiority seeking masses whose moral compass is trod upon by their ambitions blinded by religious zealotry or militaristic goals incommensurate with geopolitical realities. We do not need more Rwandas in this world. No more Armenian Genocides or Jewish Holocausts. No amount of Beethovens or Khatchadourians or Kasparovs or Bachs will make up in beauty and serenity what we have lost in the hands of barbarity and mass cruelty, which Beast on the Moon addresses with quiet, muted elegance and cogency.

See previous references for Beast On The Moon on Groong:
"Beast On The Moon" Production in Los Angeles

And Dr. Afeyan's previous review of it in 2003:
Beast On The Moon: An Armenian Journey of Self Discovery in America

--
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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