Theatre Essays & Articles >> An Armenian Love Story
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 rehearsals.
 
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 response.
 
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 baggage.
 
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 motivates her?
 
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 loves him...
 

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