Silence Isn't Golden
The year is 1921. Aram Tomasian, a survivor of the 1915 massacre of Armenians by the Turks, is trying to make a life for himself in Milwaukee. He has bought himself a picture bride, a fifteen-year-old orphan called Seta. Aram is young, but he's rigid and traditional in his thinking, and the trauma he's endured has only intensified these tendencies. He keeps a photograph of his murdered family on the wall, with the faces cut out, and is determined that he and Seta will fill these blank spaces by producing "life after life after life." The newly arrived Seta is lively and irrepressible, but she's also a frightened child, clinging to the doll her mother gave her. The tone of these early scenes is fresh and original, and they tremble between humor and horror. We fear for the vulnerable Seta, but we can't really hate poor, damaged Aram for his blind insistence on his marriage rights.
Seta proves unable to conceive. Probably something to do with the "starving" she experienced at the age of nine, she tells her husband with a complete lack of self-pity. During this act, the Armenian genocide provides an underlying tension -- we see how the slaughter and displacement distorted these two lives -- but the horror is never confronted head-on. Throughout, an elderly man serves as a frame, watching Aram and Seta, sometimes speaking directly to the audience, providing a small sense of distance. It's this delicate balance of feeling, the intense subtext pressing up against the actors' words, that gives Bas Bleu Theatre Company's Beast on the Moon its quiet power.
Aram worships all things American. A photographer, he begins to make a living with his camera. Seta cooks lamb stew and swaps recipes with their Italian neighbors. She grows up. But Aram's obsessive desire for children casts a wearying pall; his bitter silences and her desperate chatter define their marriage. Finally, in a terrific scene, Seta confronts Aram with a silence as deadly and censorious as his own.
Gemma Aguayo is an enchanting Seta. She is small and quick, with huge eyes that faithfully reflect everything she's feeling -- which includes cynicism and alienation as well as innocence and trust. It's a tribute to the genuine emotion with which Sotirios Ilia Livaditis imbues Aram that we forgive the character his cruelty and self-righteousness. Under the direction of Laura Jones, the two actors work well together; their rhythms mesh, they are both unafraid of silences. I have no idea what an Armenian accent sounds like, but the actors' inflections are consistent and unself-conscious -- and therefore convincing.
The second act brings the play's big, emotional climax, but it doesn't have the power of the first act. Seta has been befriending orphans, and she invites a fifteen-year-old boy into their home for food and a bath. As written, this character, Vincent, is not nearly as well-delineated as Aram and Seta. He's a generic sad kid, a wee bit cheeky or humorous now and then, but lacking the depth of the other characters. Cody Levitt brings a low-key charm to the role, but Vincent remains a tool, a device created by the playwright to effect some kind of reconciliation between Aram and Seta. We now realize that the ever-present narrator is a grown-up Vincent, haunting the past and trying to understand his benefactors. This is a difficult role: The narrator is called on to watch silently for long periods of time, and the actor playing him has to decide when to be almost invisible and when to obtrude on the audience's notice. Not every moment works, but Earlie Thomas brings energy and sensitivity to the role.
It's always dangerous when a play's climax consists of an impassioned monologue. The device can easily feel contrived and didactic. Beast on the Moon playwright Richard Kalinoski provides two such speeches. Seta tells her story, and, terrible as it is, the full telling is less affecting than the fragments we glimpsed during the first act. Aram breaks his long silence with a speech intended to reveal the terrible need and suffering behind his insistence on children and an orderly American life. But we already understand these things by inference, and it's hard to believe that decades of evasion and misunderstanding could be dissipated by one revelatory utterance.
In addition, although Aguayo and Livaditis remain empathetic and vital to watch, their youth, along with the playwright's failure of imagination, trips them up in this act. Aguayo still looks like a child herself; it's a stretch of the imagination to see her as a mother figure to the tall, self-contained Vincent. Both Aguayo and Livaditis communicate a great deal of emotion during their monologues, but it feels like stage emotion, a little generic, as if they'd had to work themselves up to it. I think it would take older actors to provide the nuance, the moments of irony, regret, rage, even bitter humor that you'd expect from a genuine survivor of a trauma this extreme.
But Beast on the Moon is well worth seeing, both on its own merits as a moving and finely acted production and because it explores a great crime of the twentieth century that has been almost forgotten. The play is testimony to the Bas Bleu Theatre Company's interest in intriguing and meaningful scripts, as well as its genuine commitment to theater as exploration and art.
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