Don't Have to Live Like a Refugee

From 1915 through 1923, one and a half million Christian Armenians died at the hands of their Muslim Turkish neighbors as part of a holy war declared by the Turkish government. Entire families were wiped out; whole communities were brutally destroyed. Like so many other people turned into refugees by this century's "ethnic cleansings," a considerable number of the Armenians who escaped death sought new lives in the United States.

Playwright Richard Kalinoski pays tribute to the suffering endured by these Armenians in his emotionally resonant two-act drama Beast on the Moon. Using spare and unflinching language, he crafts an indelible portrait of two characters -- young Aram Tomasian, a photographer, and his wife Seta, both displaced by the genocide. A "memory play" relayed in flashback by an older narrator who, we later learn, was adopted by the couple when he was a boy, Beast provides intimate glimpses of the Tomasians' lives in Milwaukee from 1921 through 1933, beginning with Aram welcoming his fifteen-year-old "picture bride" into her new home. The two were married "by proxy," as Aram calls it, after he literally bought Seta based on a snapshot of her sent to him by an orphanage in Armenia. Driven to replace his ghost-ridden past with a successful American present and future, Aram has procured Seta to help him realize his plan. Yet he finds himself thoroughly unprepared to deal with this childlike wife, who seems grateful to him for saving her, but who also has a mind of her own. Through a careful layering of details about each character -- as well as by adding visual elements such as Aram's camera, a photograph of his family, and Seta's childhood doll -- Kalinoski takes us on a journey through this marriage, from its initial confusion and miscommunication, through disappointment and anger, and on to a place of deep connection between two exiles who find solace in each other.

While Kalinoski recounts the atrocities committed by the Turks against both Aram's and Seta's families in staggering detail, those atrocities are not at the core of the drama. Instead of focusing on the dead, the playwright asks probing questions about the survivors, questions that could apply to all of us: How does a person who has weathered unspeakable loss piece together a meaningful existence? How do people who need each other but who cannot seem to communicate create a life together? The script doesn't attempt to answer these questions, but rather illuminates a range of bittersweet possibilities while telling a luminous and eloquent story.

Nominated as Best New Play of 1995 by the American Theatre Critics Association, Beast on the Moon drew standing ovations at the 1995 Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville last spring. Lauded by critics for runs that recently closed in Milwaukee and Sacramento, the play is scheduled to open in San Francisco, Chicago, and Pittsburgh over the next few months. Under the guidance of director Irina Brook (daughter of acclaimed director Peter Brook), stagings in Paris and London are also in the works. In South Florida, audiences can see the drama through February 11 at New Theatre in Coral Gables, where it's being directed by company artistic director Rafael de Acha, who fell in love with the drama as soon as he read it.

Traveling around the country from opening to opening, Kalinoski was in town for the New Theatre debut on January 5. He praised the theatre's "handsome production," although, he added, "I'm not really comfortable [comparing various stagings] because they're so different. There is inevitably some considerable divergence in how to interpret a given character, especially the main two characters."

A playwright since 1968, Kalinoski earned an M.F.A. in drama at Carnegie-Mellon, and currently directs the English education department at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York. Born and raised in Wisconsin (the setting for Beast on the Moon), the author is not Armenian, although he was married to an Armenian woman for seven years. Commenting on what led him to choose his subject, he noted, "As I moved out of my thirties into my early forties, I had a growing sense of a certain kind of courage of daily life that I see in women. I had already written about Armenians, and I thought I might begin a play in that context.

"The first thing I discovered was the notion of a child bride being brought into a space and then hiding underneath a table," Kalinoski continues. "That was the image that I started with and then I went from there." Seeking the most encompassing way to tell Aram and Seta's tale, he chose to use the device of a narrator who looks back at his adopted parents, comments on them, and searches for his own understanding of the time during which they lived. Kalinoski adds dimension to this often facile convention by juxtaposing the older commentator, known simply as the Gentleman, with the commentator's younger self -- a boy named Vincent who appears in act two.

Yet Kalinoski concedes that even in the best of circumstances such a device can be awkward. "Though I loathe to use a narrator, I decided I had to so that the general audience could appreciate the Armenian context through [another] speaker," he points out. "I tend to think that where narrators are successful they have their own specific identities, where it's not about exposition. [So] when there was a need for the narrator to be more vital, he became Vincent."

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