This article was originally published as a "Critical Corner" review
on the Armenian News Network/Groong - http://www.groong.org
AN ARMENIAN LOVE STORY: AN INTERVIEW WITH PRODUCER DAVID GRILLO
AND DIRECTOR LARRY MOSS OF BEAST ON THE MOON by Nancy Agabian
Armenian News Network / Groong, April 11, 2005
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
Beast on the Moon, a drama about newly married Armenian Genocide survivors making
their way in America post-World War I, opens Off Broadway April 27th at Century
Center for the Performing Arts. Since it first debuted in 1995, the play has been
produced widely around the world, recently winning awards for Best Play in Buenos
Aires and Paris in 2001. It has also been met with some controversy: early last
year, it was to be included in a theater festival in Karlsruhe, a city in southern
Germany with a sizable Turkish population, when the Turkish Consul threatened a
boycott of the festival; it was eventually pulled from the schedule. I'd been
hearing news of the imminent New York production of Beast on the Moon for about a
year when a friend invited me to a staged reading, presented by producer David
Grillo and director Larry Moss, last November. I learned then that Richard
Kalinoski, the playwright, was exposed to the history of the Genocide through his
marriage to an Armenian woman. I was moved by his story of Aram and Seta Tomasian,
who initially meet in their home after Aram has brought Seta, his mail-order bride,
to Milwaukee. I was also awed by the performances of lead actors Omar Metwally and
Lena Georgas, who seemed to fully embody their roles after just a few days of
I recently met with David and Larry Moss at a mid-town rehearsal space situated
among Armenian carpet dealers. They'd been in rehearsal for just a week, with three
more to go until the opening. As I entered at their lunch break, the actors were
bouncing off the scene they had just done, coming off the heightened emotions of
the play. I mentioned to Larry how impressed I'd been with the actors when I'd seen
the staged reading, expecting him to tell me of his work as a renowned acting
coach (he worked with Leonardo DiCaprio on his role as Howard Hughes in The Aviator
and Hillary Swank in Million Dollar Baby), but instead he told me that the casting
director (Vince Liebhart) did an amazing job, that the actors were absolutely the
right fit for their roles, eager and willing to go to the hardest reaches of their
characters. A tall, bespectacled man with a graying beard, he spoke with much
emotion about Beast on the Moon. David was gregarious and equally passionate about
their artistic cause. We continued our conversation seated in comfortable, threadbare
sofa and chairs of the rehearsal space as the afternoon sun shined in through a
window behind us.
NANCY AGABIAN: My first question to you both: how did you initially come into contact with
the play, and what about the play made you decide to bring it to this point?
DAVID GRILLO: I encountered this play first as an artist. I am an actor as well as a producer
and I performed the central male role in the Boston production six years ago. I recognized it
as a masterpiece at the time. I became interested in the Armenian genocide through Beast on
the Moon... This play is educating people. I'm a good example. I'm an odar who knew nothing
about the genocide. And I did the research that artists do; you steep yourself in the world of
the play. And I said "Well, not only is this a masterpiece, this play, as it is, but also this
is an enormous historical injustice that's never been aired, never been righted." And so it
just stayed with me. And I called Richard [Kalinoski], three years ago and said, "Why isn't
your play in New York City?"
I had a number of friends who knew Larry... and I just had a feeling that he would be the right
man for the job [to direct]... This play is all about the actors... and what Larry has done his
whole career is draw extraordinary performances out of already gifted actors. So that's what
makes him a great fit for the play.
LARRY MOSS: I have a student Michael Goodfriend who did this play, who played Aram in Los
Angeles, and I ran into Simon who directed it, so he said, "You should read this play, I'm
talking to the producer about setting up a meeting." So I read the play... Having been a
teacher for so many years (I've been teaching 32 years), I have read hundreds of plays and seen
hundred of plays... I'm grateful to say a lot of times I know how to read a script... When I
read something that's incredibly moving, I fall out of my chair, and I start crying, and I have
to get myself back together to go back to the play to read more of it. And that's basically what
happened with Beast on the Moon. I got scared of it, because it hits me in a very subjective area;
the play hurts me so much. It's how I pick material. If it doesn't hurt me in that way I don't
really want to do it because life's too short...
DG: I have exactly the same process in my life, and that's why I chose this play. What's
interesting and important to recognize is that... this is a play that is through and through about
healing... The reason it's been so successful is because it's about two survivors. It's not about
the 1.5 million that were slaughtered. It's about two unbelievably lucky ones and how they not
only got out of Turkey, but then survived their own lives in middle America. And healed them-
selves enough to have a family and move on. Which is a huge challenge equal to the task of
walking across the Near East to get to Europe and then to America. Equal to that task is
arriving here as a young person and having all that baggage...
NA: What do you think is the main appeal of the play?
DG: I Have so many friends in the Armenian community now and they say to me "Why this play?
Why is it that finally this play after ninety years?" First you have to ask yourself why is it
that the Jewish community has been so very successful in telling their story for the last fifty
years and that the Armenian story somehow has never been told effectively. On a microscopic
level, the play is a really challenging drama, which is unusual, peppered with a number of
well-earned laughs, that ends redemptively. That is a kind of play that's really hard to write.
And a kind of play that a lot of people like; it appeals to a really broad spectrum of theatre-
goers and of anyone who likes stories. So that for instance, when I did it in Boston, men in
their fifties would come up to me arms crossed afterwards, and they'd say, "You know I usually
don't like this kind of thing, and my wife kinda dragged me here tonight, but I'm really glad I
came."... [There's a] real physical beauty and an artistry about it that is unusual and yet draws
a lot of people in...
LM: What you start with is the play. You can talk about the Genocide and the atrocities, but
if the play isn't there, if the characters aren't rich and deep and it isn't interesting moment
to moment -- the odyssey of each of these characters -- then you don't feel it, you don't feel
the Genocide. You love Aram and Seta, you love them and you understand them and the thing
that I think is brilliant about the play that we're discovering in rehearsals is how deep they
really are and how specific Richard wrote them. And it's up to us to bring all the specificity
and the behavior and the Armenian sensibility to it...
DG: We had an Armenian scholar come in to talk to us and we had a
dance session with an Armenian choreographer... and we have questions
out to many Armenian friends in terms of how the household will run...
Some people look at the play and they say, "Oh, it's too Armenian, why
are they so Armenian? Why can't they be more American?" Some
Armenians say, "It's not Armenian enough." It's hard to please
everybody and we're not going to... The thing that should be most
exciting to the Armenian community is not that the play is Armenian,
but that it is universal. That is far more important. We are going
to do as much as we can to make it a clear and respectful depiction of
Armenian-American life in early 20th century. But far more important
is the shape of the play. The shape of the story appeals to odars.
And that's the first time you can say that. It's been seen by one
million people. Ninety percent of them are non-Armenian.
NA: So this play appeals to a diverse audience: men, women,
Armenians, non-Armenians. What kind of promotion are you doing to
reach these audiences?
DG: The outreach for Beast is taking all the aggressive theatre
marketing tactics, and adding a real grass roots component as well.
For instance, we sent out 175,000 direct mail pieces to theatre-loving
households, are advertising in the New York Times, and many other
newspapers, radio, cross-promotions, etc. In addition, we're also
working with student groups, and through the Armenian, Greek and
Jewish churches and organizations. All the people who have a vested
interest in seeing this beautiful story of survival told, we are
befriending. And the response has been overwhelming. The play is a
great audience pleaser, and also speaks directly to the mission of any
human-rights oriented organization.
NA: You had asked the question, why has the Jewish Holocaust been
told and heard?... Because of the denial, most of the emphasis in
telling the [Armenian] story has been to say "this happened," whereas
the emphasis of Beast on the Moon is to just look at the lives of the
people who have survived the Genocide. But even though it has this
different focus there has still been conflict with the Turkish
government... I was wondering if you're concerned about a Turkish
DG: I'm not concerned with a Turkish response... I know there have
been instances of Turkish response or Turkish backlash toward Armenian
projects like Ararat and Musa Dagh, and others. The way that Beast on
the Moon is different is that the horse is already out of the barn.
This play has been around for twelve years; it's a work of art with a
global stature. It is too late. And that's different than Ararat. I
spoke to Atom Egoyan myself; I know he had a lot of trouble, a lot of
pressures and threats... that film was in its infancy.
When [the Turkish government] tried to suppress [Beast] in Southern
Germany, they were successful in canceling many of the performances;
they were very unsuccessful in burying any press. I have on my hard
drive at home twenty-five news articles from all over Germany; it was
an international embarrassment for them, all the articles written by
journalists and politicians, and a lot of public debate against the
backdrop of Turkey's application to the European union. They're
purportedly a democratic nation; is this democratic behavior, what
they have done to these artists? This is an important play, a play,
as I said, renowned internationally. Look at what they've done. They
are bullying they are censoring, they are applying pressure to artists
and administrators, and that is a no-no. Theater is sacrosanct. It
is the place where we are allowed to tell whatever stories we want...
LM: In terms of America it's really about freedom of speech and
freedom of expression. The only way the Armenian community, as I
understand it as an odar, is that they can begin to grow as a
community in more powerful ways to grieve this. And it's the lack of
grieving that causes the sense of being outside and not being
honored... and the ripple effect of it is so huge. Yesterday we were
talking to an extraordinary scholar and he started to talk about his
grandparents and what they'd been through. He crossed his legs and he
covered his heart and his foot started going like that (shaking his
foot) and I could see his eyes became moist... and I said, "I can see
how deep this is for you," and he said, "Yes it is. It is very, very
deep in me; it's ancient." And as a Jew and coming from a
dysfunctional family, you long for the time when you can sit down with
your family and your community and grieve together.
DG: And the Armenians have been prevented from doing that for
ninety years. Samantha Power in her book "A Problem from Hell" said
that the final stage of genocide is the denial of genocide, in which
you continue to victimize your victim. And I think that's why the
community has had a hard time telling their story. It's so vastly
inhumane, to continue to deny and apply pressure. I love the Teddy
Roosevelt quote, in which he says the failure to deal with the
Armenian atrocities means that all other discussion of the safekeeping
world is mischievous nonsense. I love that. I love it because the way
in which it's mischievous is financial. It's all financial. It's all
political and finance. And in 1915, not coincidentally, the U.S. got
its first whiff of Middle Eastern oil revenues. And that's why there
was no sovereignty given to Armenia. That's why there was no land, no
reparations, no recognition. And that's shameful.
NA: And that's still going on today.
DG: Yes, it's the same mischievous nonsense to this day. It is, and
it's all financial. And that is one of the things that is an
embarrassment to me as an American and also that drives me as an
artist to tell this story. Because yes, Turkey is guilty, yes Germany
is guilty in that they're definitely implicated in the Armenian
genocide and yes, the U.S. is guilty in their failure to recognize.
LM: It's very arrogant in America. All that America is filled with
is immigrants. It's like with all the movie studio kin; they changed
their names and tried to appear like they were Christians and
Catholics, and they were Jews. They lived this kind of refined, you
know, non-Jewish life, and even brought their children up without the
Jewish religion, which is what my parents did. And the denial of your
blood, of your national blood, is hurtful, so hurtful. I want the
young, the Armenian children and teenagers to come... You know it's
about a young couple and it's about a child and it's about growing up
and overcoming adversity that is huge, both internal and external, so
it's an important play because of that...
NA: What I found different about the play in terms of a piece of art
dealing with the Armenian Genocide, was seeing two people who could
have been my grandparents, having conversations my grandparents could
have had, but didn't. Instead, a lot of the things that they were
trying to deal with from their past got filtered through the generations.
So it was very satisfying to see [Aram and Seta's] conversation, their
experiences coming out in the open... I think a lot of Armenian
families just went through the day to day life and there may not have
been a vocabulary at that time for people to talk...
DG: So in Beast on the Moon, that particular generation is
processing their own grief, as opposed to just handing down the
NA: I also like that the two characters are so different, that
they're dealing with their problems in different ways and it almost
seems to me that Seta is the one, it's almost like she's the voice of
the younger generation saying "look at what you're doing."
DG: She's the one who has the vocabulary, to use your phrase. She
is the catalyst for his change. The play is about twelve years in the
life of a man who will not grieve. He will not grieve. And she shakes
him and shakes him and shakes him and says "Look at us. we're in
Milwaukee. We survived."
LM: Same thing for the orphan boy. His odyssey is very similar.
His mother is an institution, his father's dead. He is being molested
in the orphanage and he finds this orphaned woman and an orphaned
husband... and the play is about honoring, I think Aram and Seta. They
did something of great value. She stayed with him and allowed him to
grieve so he could bend into an adult man, and took an orphan off the
street and said to her husband, "this is the only child that we're
capable of having and why should we close the door on this child?"...
DG: And it's an unexpected kind of happiness that she arranges for
them. There's nothing wrong with Aram. Aram's a nice young man. He
comes to this country young, he's lucky as hell to have escaped. We
with our 21st century western eye may look at him and say, "He's a
stiff Middle Eastern man", but there's nothing wrong with him, he's a
nice young man. He's programmatic. He has a very rigid idea of what
he wants. He wants to come here; he wanted to get an Armenian wife;
he wants to have children and work. I don't see anything wrong with
any of that. The problem is he can't have exactly what he wants...
But because Seta is such an extraordinary girl, she keeps trying, she
keeps shaking him and finding a different way, to craft a vocabulary,
and she finally comes up with one... And the audience goes "Oh,
Wow. If those kids with all of their baggage can make a go of it, what
am I complaining."
LM: The thing about Seta was that she was loved. It was a wonderful
line when [he asks], "What did your parents teach you?" She says, "I
don't know, they loved me." "But what did they teach you?" She says,
"they were just my parents." Big difference between Seta and Aram in
their upbringing and their sense of what love is.
NA: I was just about to ask what's the difference between them
that she's able to grieve and he's not, and you answered it.
LM: Her mother was free; I think it was a lot about feminism too.
Her mother was free to express herself. Her father supported that
expression. He didn't go by the rigid rules; he would let his
daughter read him the Bible. And the lack of rigidity made her feel
like she was worthy of something. She believed that she had some
value. And that she believed in love.
DG: I think that's another thing that Larry and I love about the
play is that there's an extraordinary female character in it. She is
extraordinary... and the entire audience loves her.
Aram is more of a challenge. When I played him in Boston, women would
say to me at intermission "I hated you." And I would say, "Okay! What
about the end of the play?" And they said, "Well, I guess I understood
and liked him okay." And then I'd ask a more important question, which
was, "Are you glad they stayed together?" And these women would say
yes. So that's part of our journey to take people on. It's a hard
journey for a play to take you from hating someone, to understanding
them, to liking them and being happy for their success...
I want to get back to your question on Seta though. I think that
first of all she's a really smart girl. Second of all she grew up in
a city; he did not. Her family is liberal; his is traditional. She
grew up in a household where dance and music were an everyday life of
the family. She says really early on, "I've never been quiet. I'm
sorry Mr. Tomasian, I've never been quiet." She's not, and the
audience loves her for that. So she's just unusual... And that's why
this is a success story, largely. Because if she were a lesser soul,
she would be cowed by him. And their relationship would not grow.
But she is not cowed by him, she is as strong as him, and more. And
so she keeps at it.
NA: What do you think she gets from the struggle with him? What
LM: He saved her. And she feels the absolute responsibility to save
him. They understand something about each other's pain in a way that
no one else is going to understand.
DG: And the unspoken word, actually you said it in terms of her
family, but it is very seldom spoken and it is love... They love each
other. She arrives, she's immensely grateful, they're the same age,
they have the same traumatic history, they're married. Why not love
each other? And you look at them and you just know it. You know even
though it's not written; you'll see with our actors, it is infused
with love. That's the answer to the question, she does it because she