Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Raven's 'Beast on the Moon' Provides Affecting Insight into an Atrocity and Its Aftermath -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Beast on the Moon
a play by Richard Kalinoski
directed by Michael Menendian
Raven Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 6

I'm often intrigued by the unsuspecting ways in which we learn things--long past our school days--and how once we do, our previous ignorance can seem dumbfounding.

The line between awareness and obliviousness can be a rather random one.

Unless I learned about it in a high school history class and long ago forgot, I was completely unfamiliar with the early 20th century Armenian Genocide until just a few weeks ago.

As a Jew who has always been acquainted with the horrors of the Holocaust, and has visited numerous museums covering not only it but related atrocities, it's hard to fathom that I--seemingly--never even heard of another systematic extermination of possibly 1.5 million or more people, which if Wikipedia is to be believed, begat the word genocide.

It was only thanks to System of a Down that I came to know of the slaughter of Armenians at the hands of the Turks when both were part of the Ottoman Empire. SOAD--a politically strident but lately largely inactive band comprised of Armenian-Americans--toured Europe this spring to raise awareness of the 100th anniversary of the genocide, the onset of which began April 24, 1915 when a group of Armenian intellectuals was deported; most were ultimately killed.

I didn't travel to any stops on the Wake Up the Souls tour, which only played Los Angeles in the U.S., but watched clips on YouTube, as well as the full live stream of the band's first ever concert in Armenia.

Curious that such an awful event escaped my wherewithal, I read about the Armenian Genocide on Wikipedia and also noted that Kim Kardashian, one of her sisters and Kanye West visited Armenia to commemorate the centenary as the Kardashians are of Armenian descent.

So too is Michael Menendian, longtime artistic director of Chicago's Raven Theatre, now located at 6157 N. Clark St.

I have seen and enjoyed a handful of plays there, but was completely oblivious to its current production of Beast on the Moon--a 1995 play by Richard Kalinoski pertaining to the Armenian Genocide--until my mom told me she saw and liked it.

Though I'm always up for exploring fine, recommended theater, I'm still not sure I would have made a point of seeing Beast on the Moon if its subject matter didn't revolve around this horrendous history of which I had just become aware.

But I'm glad I did, not just for the history lesson--which after an opening slide show of harrowing photos depicting Armenian victims and refugees is somewhat secondary to a domestic tale.

With just four cast members, Beast on the Moon chronicles two Armenian orphans as they have settled in Milwaukee as a married couple in 1921.

Aram Tomlinson, played here by Matt Browning, is a 23-year-old man who lost his family in the genocide. He works as a photographer, already settled into his home as the play opens, to which he brings freshly-arrived Seta (Sophia Menendian), a 15-year-old orphan who is Aram's mail order bride.

Sophia Menendian, under her father's direction, is excellent as Seta, well-portraying her excitement simply to be alive, devastation over losing her family, appreciation to Aram for her new life but also apprehension over the expectations of being a wife, particularly given her husband's preoccupation with starting a family.

Accompanied onstage by a shadowy older man (Ron Quade) whose relevance is only fully revealed in Act II, the couple bicker--especially as Aram's stews over Seta's inability to get pregnant--but grow together as Kalinoski's play transpires across a 1921-1933 time span.

It is an interesting and insightful exposition of an immigrant couple in another age. And particularly given the pall of their tragic pasts, Beast on the Moon--thus titled per a line in a cited anecdote--paints a poignant picture with psychological shrewdness, aiding understanding of ugly behavior as we can't completely scorn Aram even as he frequently acts like an indignant ass.

Throughout the approximately 120 minute 2-act play (plus intermission), the savagery, ravages and repercussions of the genocide are worked into Aram and Seta's dialogue, and simply their beings.

As author Kalinoski shares in a program note:
"Armenians and non-Armenians around the world have seemed to respond to the portrait of marriage first--and then a bit later coming around to ponder the trenchant realities of the near destruction of an entire people."
Strictly in terms of drama--although Sophia Menendian's winning embodiment of Seta also imbues a fair amount of humor--Beast on the Moon is a good play but not, on its surface, a sensational one. Particularly with pleasant weather finally in Chicago's midst, and some rather exciting hockey being played, one could be excused for not rushing to catch it during the last week on the Raven's mainstage.

But as it tells a story beyond its story, a history beyond its history--attractively supported by beautiful artwork and Oriental rugs the Raven is displaying as part of a 100th Anniversary observance of the Armenian Genocide--it definitely is a quality play that I found quite worthwhile.

And sad as the surrounding subject matter is, I'm glad I now know a little bit more about it.

Discount tickets for Beast on the Moon may be available on HotTix, which is how I got mine.

1 comment:

Ken said...


Sorry to hear that learning, ordinarily a joyous activity, resulted in yet another discovery confirming humanity's depravity.

Hem covered the Greco-Turkish war for the Toronto Star as a correspondent. Here's a couple of his dispatches: http://www.armeniapedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Hemingway:_A_Witness_to_the_Armenian_Genocide

Paula McClain in her novel, The Paris Wife, depicts Hem going through one of his depressions brought on by covering the Greco-Turkish war. (She posits that Hem engaged in sensual hedonism as an antidote to the pain he felt, but tried to hide, brought on by what he was witnessing.) I guess there is a limit as to how much sadness anyone can experience, including the tough guys.

One of his most moving, and saddest short stories was a vignette based on a scene from that war. You can find it here: http://rauschreading09.pbworks.com/f/The+Old+Man+at+the+Bridge+packet.pdf