Beast On The Moon

By Richard Kalinoski
Directed by Rick Lombardo
New Repertory Theatre
Newton Highlands, MA --- through February 14th

 Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Richard Kalinoski's "Beast on The Moon" is a delicate play about a brutal subject: the genocide launched against the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire in 1915. Kalinoski has distilled an epic event into a series of domestic scenes, simple and uninsistent, that invite the audience to feel its way in to the unthinkable even as the actors' silences express the unspeakable.

The narrative unfolds with the quiet force of a haiku.  The spare, symbolic details are naturalistic enough that a still photo of any moment from the play would not look out of place hanging in the lobby with the exhitibit by Project SAVE from the Armenian Photograph Archives in Watertown, Massachusetts.  The technique of the time precedes the snapshot.  There is no attempt at catching the detail and crosscurrents of daily life:  the subjects must pose just so, and hold completely still for the lengthy exposure.  They dress in their best, arrange themselves in order of social importance, and face the camera well aware of the symbolic nature of the pictures for which they are posing.   Historical and anthropological illustrations of the Armenians in their traditional villages,  proud group portraits of patriarchs surrounded by two or three generations of offsprring, sad eyed orphans in mute appeal to international charity, and the studio shots of the immigrant remnants who miraculously escaped to new lives in America , all attest to the real circumstances from which "Beast on the Moon" was drawn.  But the play is built so that the audience is frequently reminded that this theatre piece is not attempting the literalism of a documentary film, or of those lobby pictures.

Kalinoski is not intent on the particulars of the groupings on either side of this genocide, or how neighbors were divided into victims and murderers.   The author has framed the play as an attempt by an old man to remember and understand a pair of survivors who were kind to him in his youth.  The old man,  played by Philip Patrone,  believes that whatever good he made of his life is owing to that crucial kindness.  But the older he gets, the more mysterious it seems. Where did this kindness come from?  What did it cost the pair?  What did they gain by it?

David Grillo plays Aram Tomasian, the son of an Armenian village photographer who was a minor functionary of the Turkish regime that decreed the exterpation of the Armenian people in a frenzy of ethnic cleansing.   The boy Aram stayed hidden by his father's overcoat as his whole family was beheaded.  He escaped and made his way to America, where he practices his father's trade and aspires to defeat the genocide by fathering a Tomasian family of his own.  The young man has a single preserved family photograph, from which he has cut the faces of his dead relatives and inserted his own face and that of the fifteen year old girl Seta, the "picture bride" he has rescued from an Armenian orphanage and married by proxy.  Aram has set himself up as a photographer, specializing in family portraits of the many immigrants who have come to America.  Aram prospers because he has a particular talent for making the immigrants children look beautiful.  Barely more than a teenager himself, Aram is eager to have a bride with whom to practice their sacred duty and give birth to his father's descendants, who will fill in the picture and restore the Tomasian family to life.

However, Aram's plan does not go smoothly.  Seta, played by Darla Max,  is very very grateful to be alive and in America.  Every day the orphans were dying from disease and malnutrition, and Seta's turn to die might well have come had Mr. Tomasian not sent for her.  However, although the picture Aram was given looks like her, it isn't in fact Seta, but another girl, one who is now dead.  And grateful as she is to be alive and a wife, Seta is terrified of sex, having witnessed her sister's rape and murder.

Kalinoski tracks the marriage over time as the couple tries and fails to fullfil Aram's plan.  Grillo and Max,  with only minor adjustments in costume and hairstyle, mature convincingly over a little more than a decade from children in thrall to the horrific events that cast them ashore in the New World to adults woven into their adopted community, where their unassuageable sorrow is only one thread in the tapestry of their lives.   Patrone's narrator bounces out of his elderly persona and enters the couple's story as his young self Vincent, a starved and beaten Irish kid on the run from an orphanage. Rick Lombnardo oversees the emotional progressions and the shifts from naturalism to what is very nearly allegory with a deft hand, and Lombardo has inspired achingly beautiful work not only from his remarkable cast, but from every element of the production's design: Richard Chambers' set, John Malinowski's lighting, Francis McSherry's costumes, Amy McIver's props, and the musical score performed by Martin Haroutunian on the traditional Armenian instrument called the dukduk.  By the end, there were no dry eyes in the section of the audience revealed to me by the house lights.