Critics' Forum
Theater
The Best of Theater: 7 in `07
By Aram Kouyoumdjian

The practice of handing out awards or issuing "best of" lists to
honor artistic achievements certainly has its detractors. These
detractors are offended when artists are pitted against each other
in "competition," and they doubt that art can ever be evaluated
objectively.

I find their arguments valid. I never look at the Oscars or the
Tonys as final arbiters of the "best" film or play in any given
year. I recognize them as purely subjective exercises. After all,
high-brow fare like Atonement may be fodder for the upcoming Academy
Awards, but the People's Choice Awards has Transformers among its
three Best Movie nominees and may be bestowing its Favorite Leading
Man honor on former wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.

Awards and "best of" lists are important, however, as expressions of
appreciation and encouragement that recognize artistic talent and
effort, and basically say, "Well done!"

It is in that spirit that I offer this entirely personal "best of"
list that covers Armenian theater for the past year in seven
categories. It highlights the productions that were particularly
impressive in their staging and the individuals who displayed a
superior command of their craft. In essence, however, the list
stands as a compilation of experiences that managed to do what
theater does best. They moved me.

I. Productions
What most deserves celebrating in this category is the sheer number
of Armenian productions - nearly three dozen - that abounded in
Southern California over the last 12 months. These numbers point to
an unmistakable boom in Armenian theater currently in progress.

Helping the boom is the intimate Luna Playhouse that has accounted
for much recent theater activity in the Armenian community, staging
not only its own productions but providing a venue to both
established and emerging guest artists.

Among Armenian-language shows, Luna's production of Hanoon Hayreniki
Yev Zhoghovrdi (In the Name of the People and the Fatherland) offered
an engaging take on Gevorg Sargsyan's surreal account of an ordinary
man caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare. Among English-language
productions, Luna's revival of William Saroyan's Hello Out There, in
which a young woman befriends a wrongly jailed man, was potent in its
emotional charge. Over at the Fountain Theatre, the 20th anniversary
staging of Sojourn at Ararat, which recounts Armenian history through
our nation's poetry, was lyrical, poignant, and inspiring. Among
translations, the Ardavazt Theatre Company's version of The Venetian
Twins was an entertaining romp that ably captured the farcical
elements of Carlo Goldoni's 18th-century script.

II. Directors
In the realm of drama, Nora Armani's direction of Sojourn at Ararat
was graceful and fluid as it navigated the show's tonal shifts, while
shifts of perspective - almost filmic in effect and achieved by
altering the angles of movable set pieces - infused Tamar
Hovannisian's take on Hello Out There with vibrancy. Michael Arabian
replicated the moody atmosphere of John Patrick Shanley's Danny and
the Deep Blue Sea (at the Elephant Theater) without sacrificing its
visceral energy.

In the comic realm, Aramazd Stepanian was inventive with the surreal
aspects of Hanoon Hayreniki Yev Zhoghovrdi; the commedia dell'arte
style was solid in execution in The Venetian Twins, helmed by Krikor
Satamian; and sheer camp was delightfully realized by Lilly
Thomassian in The Lady in Question (at Luna), a spoof of film noir.

III. Actors
The majority of memorable performances by actors happened to be in
Armenian-language productions. Robert Khatchatryan showed beautiful
restraint in Hanoon Hayreniki Yev Zhoghovrdi with his superb
portrayal of a befuddled Everyman, while cast mate Aram Muratyan
exhibited impeccable comic timing as a corrupt mayor. Muratyan was
in equally fine form sharing the stage with the excellent Ari
Libaridian doing double duty as The Venetian Twins and with Krikor
Satamian, a skilled veteran who coaxed laughs as an adulterous
politician in A Lost Letter (Ardavazt Theatre Company at the
Manoogian Center). Avetis Khrimyan did expert work in Yedtsentsoom
(Aftershock) at the Stars Theatre, playing a man confronting personal
crises in post-earthquake Armenia.

The exceptions to these Armenian-speaking players included Voki
Kalfayan as the wacky and tacky lounge lizard headlining The
Gazillionaire Show (at M Bar), and, conversely, Alex Kalognomos,
solemnly impactful as the wrongly jailed man in Hello Out There.

IV. Actresses
Kalognomos had a strong co-star in Karine Chakarian, and Anais
Thomassian was the perfect foil for Kalfayan as ditzy and squeaky-
voiced bandleader Pretty Penny. These young actresses were in good
company with Narine Avakian, who shone in The Venetian Twins as the
twitch-addled Rosaura, and Mary Kate Schellhardt, whose emotionally
devastating performance in Sojourn at Ararat embodied both tragedy
and hope.

Noteworthy performances by veteran actresses included Karen
Kondazian's acclaimed portrayal of operatic diva Maria Callas in
Master Class (Santa Barbara Theater at the Lobero) and Violetta
Gevorgyan's turn as a mother fending for her family in Yedtsentsoom.

V. Solo Performances
Bryan Coffee's accomplished work in The Weekly Armenian (at the NoHo
Arts Center) notwithstanding, the significant trend in solo
performance was the dominance of the field by female artists. No
less than five women of Armenian descent took solo flights last
year. (That number would rise to six if one were to count Sona
Movsesian's clever armeniamania, in which two of her friends crash
her one-woman show). The pieces were often autobiographical and
explored not only their authors' Armenian identity but their diverse
roots in such countries as Egypt, Iran, and Lebanon.

The standout piece, however, was Lory Tatoulian's Pomegranate Whisky
(at the Heartbeat House Studio), a faux cabaret act constructed of
monologues and accentuated by musical selections. Tatoulian was spot-
on throughout her show, but perhaps nowhere more so than in a sketch
about the Statue of Liberty, dragging on a cigarette in a fit of
ennui and droning about returning to France.

VI. New Works
Several full-cast plays in Armenian and English found their way to
local stages, while three translated works included the first-ever
version of Harold Pinter's The Lover. A number of these new works
reached the boards thanks to the efforts of Aramazd Stepanian, who
not only co-translated The Lover (with Artashes Emin), but directed
the American premiere of Hanoon Hayreniki Yev Zhoghovrdi and the
world premiere of Yedtsentsoom (by Khoren Aramouni). As such,
Stepanian can further be credited for making the most substantial
contribution to Armenian-language drama in 2007.

VII. Technical Achievements
The dynamic duo of Maro Parian and Henrik Mansourian continued
chalking up successes in technical theater. Parian, both a director
and a designer, was the talent behind the sets of Hello Out There and
Sojourn at Ararat, and the costumes for Sojourn and The Lady in
Question. Mansourian's elegant lighting design for Sojourn included
the smart and subtle use of reds, blues, and ambers - correlating to
the colors of the Armenian flag.

The best sound effects were in Bryan Coffee's The Weekly Armenian -
and were remarkable for the fact that they were generated with
nothing more than Coffee's own voice box.

Looking Forward
The new year kicks off with great promise, as Vahe Berberian's Baron
Garbis premieres in January. This Armenian-language work is the
first multi-character play from Berberian in nearly 20 years. It
will, hopefully, usher in 12 months of quality productions that will
generate much to celebrate come this time next year.


All Rights Reserved: Critics' Forum, 2008

Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting
("The Farewells") and directing ("Three Hotels"). His latest work
is "Velvet Revolution."

You can reach him or any of the other contributors to Critics' Forum
at [email protected] This and all other articles published
in this series are available online at www.criticsforum.org. To sign
up for a weekly electronic version of new articles, go to
www.criticsforum.org/join. Critics' Forum is a group created to
discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.