Immigrant's Song

"I want to yell things in newspapers," one character says in Leslie Ayvazian's play Nine Armenians. The granddaughter of a prominent minister who fled his native Armenia for freedom in America, she intends to tell anyone who will listen that her people's suffering--which remains palpable today--has been ignored by humankind.

As Ani (Sarah Koskoff) and eight of her Armenian-American relatives interact in the drama, we learn that one million Armenians were slaughtered by Turkish forces during World War I. Further revelations include the fact that the family's ancestral homeland is blighted by starvation, lack of shelter and fuel shortages. Power, when it comes on, is available for just a few hours at a time, usually at odd stretches in the middle of the night. With little food, heat or clothing, Armenians succumb to the faceless enemies of hunger and hypothermia.

Beyond the horrific tales of human suffering, however, Ayvazian's play bears testimony to one family's legacy as it endures not only the hardships of nature and governments, but also the inevitable changes that mark the passing of each generation. Persecuted for their religious beliefs, the family members continue to be faithful. Divided by conflict that has scattered them all over the world, they remain united in spirit. And in the face of death, their abiding love for one another remains strong.

As the play opens, Ani travels on a soul-searching mission to Armenia, from where she sends postcards to her family, Mount Ararat looming behind her on the stage. (The simple, tasteful sets are by Ralph Funicello.) Her parents, John (Tom Mardirosian) and Armine (Cheryl Giannini), keep up with her progress overseas while striving to move ahead with the business of everyday life. Their two rollerblading children, Raffi (Zak Gavin) and Ginya (Tiffany Ellen Solano), complete the picture of a family stretched to its limits as traditional culture and contemporary sensibilities collide.

An abundant sense of humor augments the many-faceted characterizations that director Gordon Davidson has drawn from his actors. Just as we settle into a weighty scene, the laughs come--from a cemetery, where Papa's grave is covered by bird droppings left by an admiring flock; or from the driveway, where family goodbyes take longer than the visits themselves.

Throughout, the production is marked by fine performances, most notably the splendid, multilayered acting of Magda Harout, who plays Non, the widowed grandmother. Bereft of her husband's love after a lifetime of struggle together, she anchors the production with a portrayal that moves in a slow crescendo from meek simplicity to towering strength by play's end.

At first, Non appears to be a dotty old woman who mistakes, in the same sentence, "Nevada" for "Nebraska" and "test site" for "gravesite," each malaprop bringing forth waves of laughter from the audience. But despite her feeble-minded appearance, she remains a force to be reckoned with. It is Non, after all, who is the living link to the family's past. Stories of hardship in her homeland can only be imagined by her family; she has experienced them firsthand.

When she hears that her fellow Armenians now live in cargo containers, without food or clothing, her back stiffens as she raises a hand to cover her mouth, signifying with one gesture what words cannot express. Later, when Ani returns from Armenia, her grandmother breaks a decades-old silence and, out of disgust for the younger woman's self-pity, recounts for her all the atrocities committed against her own mother-in-law.

Teaching Ani how to live with the burdens that come as a result of loving those who are in pain, the matriarch says, "Rub...squeeze...groan." As Ani repeats the sequence, she brings her hands together and clutches her abdomen as she keens, and we enter into the family's suffering after having earlier befriended the clan in the midst of frivolity.

Many such emblematic moments imbue the drama, reminding us that uplifting plays, like uplifting experiences in life, are often born of tragic circumstances. And we find that our spirits are never so elevated, our hearts never so free and our minds never so hopeful as when the theater illuminates a life that has persevered in the face of destruction.

Koskoff's pivotal portrayal of Ani begins on an emotional high note--she delivers the eulogy at her grandfather's funeral--and stays there as she moves from one impassioned moment to another. Often, however, Ani's outrage comes across as petulance, with Koskoff appearing to play a generalized emotional quality rather than responding to the situation at hand. A quavering voice might be characteristic of someone in anguish, but emotional truth is always measured against a person's will to suppress it. Koskoff's pangs of misery are never abated by an urge to fight them, save for when she and Harout wring their hands together in shared sorrow.

Part of an ongoing series of artistic exchanges between the Denver Center Theatre Company and leading resident theaters throughout the country, Nine Armenians has arrived in town from Los Angeles in return for the DCTC's production of Black Elk Speaks, which played at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum (where Davidson serves as artistic director) in 1995.

While Ayvazian's creation is more of a pastiche than a traditionally told story, it is nevertheless the kind of play that the theater could use more of: a drama that illuminates the human experience rather than a sketchy undertaking that talks you to death. Ironically, it is because of the play's tragic moments, and not its comic ones, that we are able to discover castles in the air among the earthly ruins.

Nine Armenians, through October 11 at the Stage Theatre in the Plex, 14th and Curtis streets, 893-4100.

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