Beast on the Moon
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 26, 2005
Hitler said, just before he invaded Poland, "Who today, after all, still speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?"
The atrocities he perpetrated against Jews, against homosexuals, against Gypsies, have been abundantly documented in art and culture; his enemies have waged a determined battle to ensure that what the Nazis did will never be forgotten, even as their enemies attempt to minimize or even deny that the Holocaust ever happened. This isn't just important work, it's essential.
The Armenian genocide, which predated the Holocaust by two decades, is less well-known in America and elsewhere, and that needs to be remedied, particularly because the Turkish government continues to refute it. The press materials accompanying Richard Kalinoski's play Beast on the Moon recount instances where past productions of this work have been shut down by Turkish protesters (in California and Germany). Such censorship is appalling, and has made this play, which tells the story of two Armenian survivors of the 1915 genocide who journey to America, something of a cause celebre, wearing its shut-down productions like badges of honor.
But notoriety and noble intentions do not, by themselves, make a play important or good. If Beast on the Moon were the latter, then its author would have found a way to put the exposition inside the play rather than (oh so clumsily!) in the hands of a narrator whose presence makes no sense. And if it were the former, it would seriously and compassionately plumb the authentic suffering of its characters and recognize that the most it can offer is a platform for its articulation, rather than pushing toward pat, cozy, pop-psychology resolutions to problems that can almost certainly never be resolved.
Beast on the Moon begins in 1921, six years after the Turkish government systematically annihilated one million of its citizens, "an unarmed Christian minority population" of Armenians (I'm quoting a program note). Aram (the excellent Omar Metwally), a photographer who emigrated to Milwaukee after his family was beheaded by the Turks, has just picked up his "picture bride," a 15-year-old girl named Seta (Lena Georgas) who has been living in an orphanage in Istanbul since the killing of her parents. The play charts the first dozen years of their marriage, the central conflicts of which are (a) their inability to conceive a child, which the traditionalist Aram views as incontestably Seta's fault; and (b) their inability to communicate effectively with one another, which is apparently caused by Aram's unwillingness to open up and share the family tragedy that he witnessed in 1915 with his wife.
Kalinoski stacks his deck so that it seems that all the mistakes in this marriage are Aram's. The playwright wants us to see Aram as a bullheaded fundamentalist who treats his wife like chattel (he gives her an iron as present—how insensitive!) and whose chosen method of coping with cataclysmic tragedy is primitive and cold-hearted. We are somehow supposed to side with Seta when she unfeelingly gives away Aram's father's coat to Vincent, the street kid that she inexplicably takes in one day and feeds and bathes; we're not supposed to be astonished that after twelve years of marriage, Seta doesn't understand how important that coat is to her husband.
When Aram finally breaks down and relates to Seta the circumstances of his family's murder, we're supposed to believe that he is immediately thereafter healed. If only life were really that simple.
So the love story at the heart of Beast on the Moon is too superficial to be engaging; unfortunately, there's really not much else to the play. The fine actor Louis Zorich is on hand as an 80-year-old version of Vincent, serving as our narrator and providing us with snippets of information about the Armenian genocide that, while informative, always feel inserted rather than organic (they could have been inserted in the program as notes, along with the Hitler quote). What's more, we have no clear idea why Vincent is here now telling us this story. (Zorich is a pleasure to watch, as usual; Matthew Borish, the badly miscast young actor who plays 12-year-old Vincent in Act Two, is not.)
In the end, though it's commendable in calling attention to a vast human catastrophe, Beast on the Moon fails to actually dramatize the catastrophe in any coherent way. I don't mean to trivialize their histories, but it felt as though Aram and Seta could have been victims of any of the (far too many!) systematic destructions of populations that have occurred during the past 100 years. Why did the Turks kill the Armenians? How did Aram get to Milwaukee? Why Milwaukee? Where did the other survivors go? How did the survivors survive? Who kept the flame of Armenian nationhood alive? How do Aram and Seta feel about that? None of this is in Beast on the Moon. But I think we need some of it in order to start to understand the scope of this particular tragedy. Otherwise, it's an abstraction, and worse, a banal one: the kind of generality that leads a Hitler to dismiss a million deaths in eleven words. We need plays—and films and TV shows and books and paintings—to bring this terrible piece of history into sharp focus and help all humankind remember its devastation so we don't let it happen again. But we need a better play than Beast on the Moon to do it right.