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Beast on the Moon

You see, in Turkey, in 1893, before Aram and Seta were even born, there was an eclipse of the moon. In villages and towns the Turks came out into the night and shot their cannons and their guns at the "wild beast" in the sky covering the moon. Their Turkish neighbors shouted at the beast on the moon. The Armenians watched. And then, two years later in 1895, the Sultan, worried about a few upstart Armenians, declared a Holy War, a Jihad, and instantly the Turks came out again into the night and shot their guns. "But not at the beast in the moon." They shot their neighbors, the Armenians.
--- Gentleman
Lena Georgas & Omar Metwally
Lena Georgas & Omar Metwally
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The Turks' abuse of their Armenian neighbors began even before the Ottoman Empire's horrific slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians, committed under cover of World War I. The New York premiere of Richard Kalinoski's Beast on the Moon aptly coincides with the 90th anniversary of that horrendous mass murder, which, though well-documented, is not as well known as it should be, thanks to the Turkish government's all too successful efforts to deny its reality.

The New York premiere culminates almost a decade of around the world productions. One of the two main producers, David Grillo, became convinced the play should be seen by New York audiences when he himself performed during its Boston run in 1999. The anniversary of the infamous fenocide provides a timely opportunity for this Johnny come lately New York launch. I asked more than half a dozen people of varying ages whether they'd ever heard of the genocide and my little survey makes it amply clear that this is indeed a story that needs to be told. Mr. Kalinoski has chosen to distill this epic event into an intimate story. While this makes for a rather familiar and predictable drama, it's a history lesson without a whiff of the schoolroom or preaching.

The play is set in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and uses the genocide to counterpoint the story of two of its survivors and their marriage. That marriage begins in 1921, just six years after the 1915 Genocide. Armenia is far away but it's what brings Seta and Aram Tomasian (Lena Georgas and Omar Metwally) together and keeps them emotionally apart.

The more usual aspects of immigrant life are spliced into the scenes from the marriage in order to let some much needed lighter moments penetrate the more serious moments; thus Seta's amusing mannerisms and winning personality intensify the impact of her cowering under the table when it's time to consummate the marriage. For Seta sex is associated with watching her sister raped. For Aram it's less an act of passion than a necessity for his determination to replace his lost family. Seta's charm and the inherent likability lurking beneath Aram's austere and focused persona make us root for both these young people to be released from their past and find happiness together.

Essentially, Beast is a standard memory play with a theme of redemption through hope and a willingness to move forward instead of bitterly and obsessively clinging to the past. The narrator, an old man known only as Gentleman (Louis Zorich) who turns out to be more than a bystander or witness to their life, adds to the viewer's sense of flipping through an old photo album and watching a page here and a page there spring to life.

Neil Patel's single set, a crimson-walled room leading to a hallway, effectively contains everything needed to physically and symbolically tie the past and present together. A large dining room table that evokes the plentiful nourishment available in Seta and Aram's adopted land is flanked on one side by an old-fashioned camera on a stand and an the other by an easel holding a large family photo.

As his photographic skill enables Aram to thrive in America, so the playwright uses photography to deepen Aram's character and to gradually merge the realistic and familiar immigrant story with the unmentionable events of the past. Aram's profession as a photographer is one way to pay tribute to his dead father who was also a photographer. When he decides to import a bride from his homeland, his choice is made from a series of photos. When his 15-year-old "picture bride" turns out not to be the girl in the photo he picked, he remakes that false image with a new picture -- but that too isn't quite accurate as he forces her to pose with an unnatural, formal expression. That marriage celebration photo comes full circle with a photo that includes, not the child of Aram's dream, but another orphan (Matthew Borish) to bring things to a bittersweet happy ending.

The family photograph that dominates the other side of the room is of Aram's butchered family. That picture and a stamp album hidden inside his father's great black coat, was all that survived of his family. The sale of the stamps financed his emigration. The headless family members in the picture and his own face in place of his father's represent his pledge to carry on the family name.

There's a certain too neat and manipulative quality to all this photography symbolism and the minimalist approach to a major historic event, especially the inevitable get-out-your-hankerchief climax. However, director Moss has staged it with great warmth and Metwally and Georgas bring a full arsenal of nuances to their characters. The narrator's presence tends to be a bit awkward and confusing, at least until the second act arrival of his youthful street urchin self, energetically rendered by young Matthew Borish.

It's easy to see why this is quiet play about a brutal subject has had such a successful history for its theme of healing and redemption is universal-- whether healing the differences between husbands and wives raised with different values and customs or healing the wounds from major disappointments and experiences of traumatizing cruelty. Unfortunately, the historic events that inspired Beast On the Moon have had counterparts throughout the world -- and still do today.

Written by Richard Kalinoski.
Directed by Larry Moss
Cast: Lena Georgas,Omar Metwally, Louis Zorich, and Matt Borish
Set Design: Neil Patel
Costume Design: Anita Yavich
Lighting Design: David Lander
Sound Design: Peter Fitzgerald
Fight Consultant: Rick Sordelet
Running time: 2 hours, plus 15-minute intermission.
Century Center for the Performing Arts, 111 East 15th Street 212/239-6200
From 4/12/05 to 8/01/05; opening 4/27/05. Tuesday through Saturday at 8:00PM and Sunday at 7:30PM with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 3:00PM. From ; opening . Tickets: $65.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on April 25th press performance
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