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."

Kalinoski credits two films for influencing Beast: Terrence Malik's evocative turn-of-the-century period piece Days of Heaven (1978), and Francis Ford Coppola's dark, fatalistic The Godfather, Part II (1974). In Days, the story unfolds through flashback, as told in the older voice of a character reflecting on events in her past. "I find that use of the narrator admirable because there's a separate perspective instead of 'he did this' and 'she did that,'" Kalinoski says. He also was touched by the sparseness of Malik's film, as well as what he terms "the brooding silence" in Godfather II. Indeed, each of these qualities -- manifested in Kalinoski's sccinct characterizations, spare details, and pointed language -- inform Beast on the Moon.

As for theatrical influences, Kalinoski laughs, "I'm fascinated by what other people are doing, but I'm not particularly admiring of it." For example, while he admits Angels in America's author Tony Kushner writes with a dramatic flair, he also thinks Kushner indulges in "intellectual arias and ends up intimidating us because of the dimension of his intellect and the esoterica he uses. There's a measure of The Emperor's New Clothes coming out." In contrast, he respects the playwright William Mastrosimone, particularly for his play The Woolgatherer, which explores the offbeat relationship between a troubled salesgirl and a hard-drinking truck driver. He also admires Arthur Miller. "I teach Death of a Salesman every year," Kalinoski notes, "and I tend to go back to [it] as kind of a guidepost for my work."

In the tradition of Miller's best dramas, Kalinoski says he seeks to make his own work "both piercing and accessible." Beast on the Moon certainly accomplishes that goal. However, the New Theatre's production of the play suffers from overly methodical direction that slows down the proceedings in the first act. Additionally, Camilo Aladro delivers a lackluster performance as Vincent (Aladro plays Vincent on Thursday and Saturday nights, alternating the role with Sean Ferrer on Friday and Sunday). As the older Vincent, Bill Hindman assumes an air of patrician distance. At times this distance highlights the character's wistful sadness, while at other times it alienates the character from the profound emotions in the script. Also, because director de Acha has not seamlessly choreographed the narrator's entrances and exits, Hindman's arrivals and departures tend to be distracting. And while Steve Shapiro has composed a compellingly dissonant, near-Eastern flavored score, the music overlays rather than underscores too many of Hindman's monologues. On the other hand, Mikuni Ohmae's high-contrast lighting sculpts the faces of the characters, lending insight into their inner conflicts, and Michael Thomas Essad's mutely colored box of a set quietly evokes a pared-down immigrant home.

Ultimately, this production does pack a wallop, mostly owing to Pamela Roza's strong depiction of Seta and David Cirone's stunning interpretation of Aram. Although Roza offers a less shaded performance than Cirone does, she nonetheless transforms Seta from a child almost giddy with fear in the first scene into a dignified and loving woman in the last one, summoning reserves of strength and wisdom from within the character along the way. And Cirone imbues the self-absorbed, controlling Aram with a measure of vulnerability that is, finally, so raw I was left speechless at the play's end.

With Beast on the Moon reaching audiences around the U.S., and with staged readings of Kalinoski's new play Between Men and Cattle scheduled to take place in New York City and San Francisco in March, the playwright seems poised for wider recognition.

Beast on the Moon.
Written by Richard Kalinoski; directed by Rafael de Acha; with David Cirone, Pamela Roza, Bill Hindman, Camilo Aladro, and Sean Ferrer. Through February 11. Call 443-5909 or see "Calendar" listings.


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