Beast on the Moon

By Richard KalinoskiBeast_Web_625x350_1

Directed by Michael Menendian

Produced by Raven Theatre, Chicago

A Frank and Poetic Tale of Survival

Raven Theatre has produced acclaimed, high-quality shows that seek to capture the American experience for many years, under the leadership of Michael Menendian and JoAnn Montemurro. Now, as part of the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, Menendian, a first-generation Armenian-American, is using his theatre to tell a story of the dispersed survivors in Beast on the Moon. The production stars his daughter, Sophia Menendian, and lives up to Raven’s usual high quality. But this show is also personal in a way special to theatre, and by including exhibits on Armenian art and history, goes the extra step to create a lasting, deeply moving experience.

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Matt Browning, Ron Quade, and Sophia Menendian. All photos by Dean La Prairie.

Beast on the Moon begins with projections, by Kelly Rickert, of old film footage depicting Armenian life in the early twentieth century. The films segue into images of mutilated bodies, and documents from the era urging Americans to provide relief to persecuted Christian groups in Asia Minor. When the curtains part, we are introduced to our narrator (Ron Quade), who sets up the story of how two young survivors found a new life in the United States in 1921. Aram Tomasian (Matt Browning), age 23, has just brought Seta (Sophia Menendian), age 15, to Milwaukee after selecting her picture out of a catalogue of orphans. She is delighted by the spacious apartment he has found for her, and because by marrying her by proxy and bribing various bureaucrats to bring her to the US, he has likely saved her life. Aram is initially displeased that she is not actually the girl whose photograph he picked—that girl died—but he decides to try life with Seta anyway. The most important parts of marriage, as Aram sees it, are for the wife to remain silent while her husband reads portions of the Bible emphasizing feminine beauty and submission to her, and to have lots of children as soon as possible. Boisterous and immature Seta, who still clutches a doll, does not like either of those ideas at all, and Aram threatens to resort to force. Only when she screams that he resembles a Turk does he relent, in horror of what he almost became.

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Ron Quade

Time goes on. Life between them remains hard. Seta talks openly about how her family was murdered, but Aram is reluctant to discuss his. For one ten-week-long period, he refuses to talk to her at all. This is hurtful to her, since rude and initially frightening as he was, Seta would really like for them to be a loving couple. However, she is infertile from malnutrition and infections, and Aram had his heart set on creating a new family to replace the one he lost. She eventually finds a way of standing up to him, and life normalizes until we see them again in 1933. By then, Seta has begun caring for orphans and run-aways, and one day, she finds a boy named Vincent (Aaron Lamm), whom she takes a special liking to. Though Aram is reluctant to have him around at first, Vincent turns out to be their best chance at healing.

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Matt Browning and Sophia Menendian

Sophia Menendian displays great versatility as Seta ages from fifteen to twenty-seven. In the early scenes Seta seems slightly daft, or just overexcited and desperate for affection. She is slow to take Aram seriously, but when she does, Menendian 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, Menendian lets her be sensible and controlled, while still retaining her streak of independence and compassion. Aram is much more provincial, conservative, and ill-equipped for dealing with trauma. He is very nasty in the first scene, and since he does not communicate, the narrator is required to explain him. Nevertheless, Matt Browning takes his character on an arc of growth and recovery, beginning with his believable portrayal of Aram’s regret and shock after he nearly rapes Seta, and continuing on with his later loneliness and misery. Aram’s family was decapitated, and he keeps a photograph of them which he has cut the heads out of. When he complains late in the show that Seta misunderstood his reason for this, the explanation is perfectly consistent with Browning’s portrayal, but also displays how much Aram has changed over the years.

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Matt Browning and Aaron Lamm

Lamm, who appears only in the second act, is a remarkable child actor. A refugee from a nightmarish orphanage, Vincent has 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. Lamm is magnetic through it all, and perfectly carries his role as the older characters’ chance for redemption. His chemistry with both Sophia Menendian and Browning is adorable. Ron Quade, as the narrator, is an interested observer and facilitator to the story, and his calm analysis helps us understand what the characters don’t say.

Beast on the Moon is unflinching in its depiction of the aftereffects of trauma, including the way it damages victims. The Armenian form of Christianity, which the characters would have been martyred for, proves when practiced traditionally to be too stifling for life in modern America. Aram is a mess, and Seta and Vincent have their own recoveries to go through. But the play isn’t all bleak. Besides the humor the children inject, Joe Court has provided a beautiful sound design which employs music at key points to reinforce the extreme emotions of the characters. The transformation of Armenian music into 1930s jazz is more of a continuum than a break, and the Armenian music returns for a breath-taking climax. Aram is a photographer, and he takes many pictures of his home life out of need to commemorate his new life, or perhaps, preserve it should it be taken from him, too. Michael Menendian’s production is a worthy commemoration of the genocide, as well as a stirring, and ultimately, life-affirming story in its own regard.

Highly Recommended

Jacob Davis
3jacob.davis@gmail.com

Reviewed April 27, 2015

This show has been Jeff recommended.

For more information, see Beast on the Moon’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at Raven Theatre, 6157 N Clark Street, Chicago. Tickets are $36 with discounts for students, teachers, military personnel, and seniors; to order, call 773-338-2177 or visit www.raventheatre.com. Plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sunday at 3:00 pm through June 6. Running time is two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission.