REVIEW: "Beast on the Moon" — (ICT) International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center
Updated: Jun 20
“So some are beheaded and some are crucified and some are slaughtered, and who wins the battle of who died the worst death? Who wins?”… Seta
Seta and Aram have one thing in common: they survived. Now, this young photographer and his mail-order bride — two exiles in a foreign land — must look to their future together in order to heal the past. Directed by award-winning director, caryn desai (“Cardboard Piano,” “God of Carnage”), Rachel Weck and Travis Leland star in Richard Kalinoski’s critically acclaimed drama, “Beast on the Moon,” a lyrical triumph of hope, humanity, and love while battling the shadows of the past.
The city of Milwaukee. And the first image we see is our narrator, the Gentleman, played by Tony Abatemarco, holding an unusual portrait, while setting up the story of how two young survivors find a new life in the United States in 1921. Aram has escaped from Armenia to the land of his dreams, and follows in his father’s chosen profession, making a living there as a photographer.
As an asylum seeker, his plan is to start over in America and create a family — big enough to replace the one that was savagely ripped from him. So, with the help of letters and photographs, he orders his bride from his homeland, which, in effect, saves a teenage girl named Seta from a shared peril: the Armenian holocaust. But when the girl arrives across the ocean, she doesn’t correspond at all to the picture Aram has created in his imagination.
And not even their painful, shared experience helps to promote domestic harmony as Seta, who is just fifteen, feels trapped by the traditions of the old ways, and struggles to embrace her new life in a new country. The most important part of marriage, as Aram sees it, is for the wife to remain silent while her husband reads portions of the Bible emphasizing submission to her husband, and to have many children as soon as possible. But the outspoken and immature Seta, who still clutches a faceless doll herself, does not like either of those ideas, and Aram threatens to resort to force. Only when she screams in fear and panic that he is acting like a Turk does he relent, in horror, of what he is becoming.
In due time, as the couple strives to redefine family amidst grief and displacement, these kindred strangers realize a love deeper than ever imagined. Correlating to courageous shades of Anne Frank, this sensitive, yet humorous love story, has moved audiences in 17 countries, and won more than 40 awards.
“Yes, you are my husband, and I am grateful, but I am Armenian too, I am a dead person living too…” –Seta, Act Two, Scene Three
She eventually finds a way of standing up to him, and life normalizes until we see them again in 1933. By then, the maternally instinctive Seta has begun caring for orphans and run-aways, and one day, she finds a boy named Vincent (Nico Ridino), with whom she becomes very fond. Though Aram is reluctant to have him around at first, Vincent turns out to be their best chance at healing.
Ms. Weck displays great versatility as Seta ages from fifteen to twenty-seven. In the early scenes Seta seems quite naive, or just overexcited in innocence and fear. She is slow to take Aram seriously, but when she does, Mr. Leland makes Seta’s terror so palpable the scene is difficult to watch. Seta grows quickly though, and by the time she is an adult in the second act, she is more sensible and controlled, while still retaining her streak of independence and compassion.
Mr. Leland’s Aram is much more provincial, conservative, and ill-equipped for dealing with trauma. He is very controlling, old-fashioned and initially frightening, and does not communicate well. In fact, the Gentleman narrator is required to explain him.
But after his believable portrayal of regret and shock when he nearly rapes Seta, Mr. Leland is still not fully able to break the cycle of loneliness and misery. Aram’s family was decapitated, so consequently, in order to cope with the tragedy, he keeps a large portrait of them on an easel in which he has cut out the heads. When he complains late in the show that Seta misunderstood his reason for this, the explanation is quite revealing and becomes the pivotal point in Aram's recovery.
The young boy Vincent, however, is the main catalyst and counteractant for their therapeutic reparation. Nico Ridino, who appears only in the second act, is a remarkable child actor. A refugee from a nightmarish orphanage, Vincent has had moments of terror to rival Seta and Aram’s. However, he is generally a peppy smooth-talker, and has a strong sense of pride and moral duty. Nico, magnetic through it all, perfectly carries his role representing the older Gentleman’s early life, and acts as a balance between two strong personalities. His chemistry with both Ms. Weck and Mr. Leland is also as inspiring as it is charming, and he eventually becomes the child they could never have.
Richard Kalinoski’s “Beast on the Moon” won the 2001 Best Play from the Repertory prize at the Moliere Awards in Paris. The Wisconsin native, whose own mother is a WWII Holocaust survivor, has distinguished himself as a playwright by writing plays with great international appeal. In researching the play, Mr. Kalinoski became intrigued with accounts of Armenian men attempting to identify eligible brides from a pool of surviving young Armenian women who resided in Istanbul circa 1915.
Indeed, since emerging with great acclaim at the 1995 Humana Festival, “Beast on the Moon” has been produced in venues all over the world, such as Athens, Brussels, London, Moscow, New York (off-Broadway), Prague, Sao Paolo, and Toronto. In doing so, it has garnered a host of awards, including the Osborn – “Best New Play in America by an Emerging Playwright,” awarded by the American Theatre Critics Association in 1996, and, in 2001, five Ace Awards, including Best Play, in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
The idea came from 1893 Turkey, when there was an eclipse of the moon. In villages and towns the Turks came out into the night and shot their cannons and their guns at the “wild beast” in the sky covering the moon. The Armenians watched. And then, two years later in 1895, the Sultan, worried about a few upstart Armenians, declared a Holy War. Instantly, the Turks came out again into the night and shot their guns – but not at the beast on the moon this time. This time, they shot their neighbors, the Armenians.
Today’s Armenia is a nation rich in arts, architecture and literature. It has its origins in the first millennium B.C. in Asia Minor where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers begin, where Mount Ararat stands prominently. Armenia’s 3000-year history is a chronicle of defiance and survival, rising and falling, but never completely conquered. A former Soviet Socialist Republic democracy, it’s a tiny republic squeezed by Azerbaijan and Turkey, historically hostile neighbors that have closed their borders to Armenia.
Dave Mickey has provided a beautiful sound design which employs Armenian music at key points to reinforce the extreme emotions of the characters (more of a continuum than a break), and is especially effective in the breath-taking climax.
The simple set, by Scenic Designer JR Norman Luker helped give us an intimate, in-depth look into the character’s lives through strategic placement of set pieces. Even the thrusting angle of the set helps this. The center table is quite far forward, creating a strong focus there, and the grey and sepia tones of color are even suggestions of Aram’s passion for photography.
Lighting Design is by Donna Ruzika, and Costumes are by Kim DeShazo, which designs seemed to be a mix of made and stock, including vintage pieces, supported by Hair and Wig Designer, Anthony Gagliardi. The costumes and set changed slightly after the interval to reflect the passage of time with small additions – a set of matching chairs and more mature, modern styles of costume for both Aram and Seta. Production Stage Manager is Victoria A. Gathe and Director desai is also Producer for the show.
The Armenian Genocide was the first genocide of the modern era, perpetuated by a border government which led to the destruction of an entire nation on its ancestral lands and created a refugee crisis of biblical proportions. Up to one and a half million people died. To this day, the Turkish government refuses to admit that the extermination ever took place.
Thousands of women and children who survived the genocide were eventually collected in safe-houses, orphanages and refugee communities, and then dispersed throughout the world in what became the Armenian diaspora that we know today.
In the play, “Beast on the Moon,” its depiction of this travesty is delicate, yet unflinching, and creates a powerful exploration of legacy for many of its survivors. Rich in historical fact, the play not only addresses the deep emotional resonance about love but also the remarkable way humans are able to survive unspeakable pain and tragedy and go on to cobble together a life in spite of it.
"Beast on the Moon" plays through September 8th, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. A post-show talkback with the cast is scheduled Sunday, September 1st. Tickets may be purchased at https://ictlongbeach.org/2019-season/ This show is strongly recommended.
The Show Report
Photos by Tracey Roman