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Beast on the Moon

by Richard Kalinoski
Theatre Passe Muraille, Toronto
April 26 to May 13, 1997

A Stage Door Review by Roger Kershaw and Jim Lingerfelt
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A story that needs to be heard

Beast on the Moon, by American playwright Richard Kalinoski, had its Canadian première this week at the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace. Directed by the avant-garde, noirish artist Hrant Alianak, this wonderfully engaging and sensitive drama is essentially a memory play that examines guilt endured by survivors of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. 

Beast premièred at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Kentucky in 1995 and went on to acclaim in New York, Chicago, and elsewhere. Alianak and Theatre Passe Muraille have placed their unique signature on it and present this touching story inspired by a sorry piece of human history often swept under the rug of collective global embarrassment.  

In 1893 a lunar eclipse occurred in Turkey, and, convinced that a "beast" was swallowing the moon, the Turks fired their guns into the sky in an attempt to kill it. The same guns, still smoking with a racial hatred toward the neighbouring Armenian population, prompted a systematic extermination of the predominantly Christian Armenians. A series of widespread pogroms in the late eighteenth century culminated in the Genocide of 1915 and the murder of almost two million Armenians, activities that then, as now, were seldom discussed outside the immediate region.

Kalinoski, whose ex-wife is Armenian, has set the play in Milwaukee, Wisconsin between 1921-1933 and spins the troubling tale of two survivors. Aram Thomasian is a newly immigrated photographer trying to build a career, and craving a wife and family in his new home. He chooses his 15-year-old Armenian bride from a series of photographs, and they are married by proxy. Young Seta arrives from an Armenian refugee camp, all wide-eyed and cloyingly indebted to her stern husband. His strict upbringing coupled with desperate sense of loss instils in him a driving need for a large family. Seta, however, has been left barren from years of starvation during the slaughter.

Burdened with the loss of their families and unable to have a child of their own, the scarred survivors struggle toward understanding and reconciliation. Entering this turmoil is a waif named Vincent, whom Seta takes under her protection. The three orphans struggle with their plagued existence and the youngster's presence changes Aram and Seta's lives forever. The playwright weaves a complex tapestry of guilt, marriage, and fear leading to an emotionally moving climax.

A gifted trio of actors portrays Aram, Seta and Vincent. Seta, played by Arsinée Khanjian, herself of Armenian descent, is transformed from the innocent child-bride of the first act to the self-assured and strong young woman by the play's end. Like the play itself, hers is a slow but sure progression leaving Seta undeniably the soul and strength of the story. Scripture-spouting Aram is played with steely determination by Rod Wilson in his debut at Passe Muraille. Although engendering sympathy for his character early in the play, in his frustration with his reluctant bride, his demanding persona soon leaves us cool. Too much in character, perhaps, Wilson seems unable to plumb the depths of emotion needed for the final, demanding and wrenching, scene. Edward Roy plays the orphan Vincent, as a young boy participating in the family drama, and as an old man narrating the story and posing the unanswerable questions. In the younger role, Roy is energetically successful and credible; as the narrator, however, he is little more than a line-reader, unable to effect the elder role with conviction.

Set and lighting designer Jim Plaxton has created a stark apartment of the 1920s, sepia-toned like the period photograph that holds centrestage. A full moon looms overhead, shining through the thrusting skylight. Victoria Wallace's period costumes support Plaxton's theme. Renowned director and playwright Hrant Alianak (his most recent directing credits include the revival of his play Lucky Strike at Passe Muraille last season) has a great feeling for theatre, as demonstrated by his inspired use of haunting Armenian folk music filling the auditorium, and completely enveloping the audience in the aural sensation.

Opening night was populated by a large Armenian contingent whose enthusiastic support was also evident in the information-packed program that accompanies the performance. This is a story that needs to be told, yet its themes have universal appeal transcending national boundaries and ignominies.

Beast on the Moon is running in the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace until May 18, 1997, Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., with a Pay What You Can matinée on Sundays at 2:30 p.m. For tickets ($16.00 and $25.00), call the box office at 416-504-PLAY (7529).

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