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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Little Armenia

We are always learning other people's languages and culture. Let a few of them learn ours!

When does the desire to preserve ethnic heritage segue into prejudice? In the play Little Armenia at the Fountain Theatre, it surfaces most strongly when a son or daughter wants to marry outside the culture.

The Fountain sits at the heart of the east Los Angeles neighborhood officially designated as Little Armenia. This is where the majority of Armenian immigrants settled.

Funded by the LA Cultural Affairs Department and the LA County Arts Commission, The Fountain's co-artistic director Stephen Sachs commissioned three Armenian/American award-winning playwrights to interview residents and dramatize their stories. The playwrights chose three different generations linked by acquaintenceship in most cases.

Although the stories are skillfully woven together, the 90-minute piece labors under the same difficulty that always besets plays like this. The overview told through three stories, which succeeds in episodic television format, sits uncomfortably in a play. Nevertheless, Little Armenia succeeds in giving a picture of the contemporary Armenian community and, as always, the production values at the Fountain are first rate.

The playwrights are Lory Bediian, Aram Kouyoumdjian and Shahe Mankerian. It's difficult to separate their playwrights' skills from the subject matter. The dialogue is deft and director Armina LaManna integrates the stories dramatically.

A play about the two older women -- Beatrice (Maro Ajemian), who fears her diagnosis of cancer more than she did her early eviction from Lebanon, and her friend Azniv (Anoush Nevart), who fears poverty and plans to buy a vegetable truck. It's set in a church, an important part of these women's cultural life. Despite the vitality of Nevart and the sensitivity of Ajemian, their concerns and worries fail to engage above a constant level of anxiety.

There are are also three teen-age boys. Azniv's son Hratch (Johnny Giacalone), a high school dropout sways towards the bad under the influence of Katcho (RB Dilanchian), a thug in the making. He is restrained by his gentle childhood friend Razmig (Salem Michael), the son of Azniv's restauranteur employer who has made enough money to move up to Glendale. The boys play an interesting word game of naming countries whose first letters begin with the last letter of the last-named country. Their innate memories of persecution flash when Hratch angrily refuses to name Azerbaidzan or Turkey, historic enemies of Armenia. Giacalone makes a conflicted vibrant Hractch, Dilanchian's strutting leering Katcho makes you see why one boy admires him and the other hates him, and Michael adds ballast as the serious sheltered Razmig.

The most dramatic story is that of the family with a daughter Siran (Karine Chakarian), whose delicate beauty seethes with passionate determination. She wants to marry an Icelander, Mark (Hunter Lee Hughes), equally passionate and holding on to politeness by a hair. Siran's father, Gevorg (Jack Kandel), whose strong tormented performance anchors the play can't bear to look at Mark. His beautiful wife Vartouhi (Jade Hykush) reads coffee grounds and exerts a fascinating image of the matriarchal presence while doing nothing outside the home. The narrator of the play is their son Ashot (Ludwig Manukian), a writer, and the playwrights' stand-in. His mischievous vigor seems to make him a contemporary man, that is until he has to take a stand on who he wants for a brother-in-law. Scott Siedman's set with three playing areas has warmth and texture, augmented by Henrik Mansourian's lighting design. The production is brightened by the jewels and mellow tones in Laura King's costumes.

Playwright: Lory Bedikian, Aram Kouyoumdjian, Shahe Mankerian
Director: Armina LaManna
Cast: Ludwig Manukian (Ashot), Karine Chakarian (Siran), Jack Kandel (Gevorg), Anoush Nevart (Azniv), Maro Ajemian (Beatrice), Salem Michael (Razmig), Johnny Giacalone (Hratch), RB Dilanchian (Katcho), Jade Hykush (Vartouhi), Hunter Lee Hughes (Mark).
Set Design: Scott Siedman
Lighting Design: Henrik Mansourian
Costume Design: Laura King
Sound Design: Shaken Hakobian
Prop Design: Goar Galstyan
Running Time: One hour 30 minutes, no intermission
Running Dates: August 11-September 3, 2006.
Where: The Fountain Theatre, 5060 Fountain, Hollywood, Reservations: (323) 663-1525
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on August 20, 2006.
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