BEAST ON THE MOON: Masterful Storytelling

BeastRarely does a play come along which illustrates Aristotle’s dramaturgical wisdom as well as does Richard Kalinoski’s Beast on the Moon.

The play’s success throughout the far reaches of world – ten years running at the Moscow Art Theater, winner of France’s Moliere Award, in production in Japan, and being translated into Turkish- testifies to the work’s power among all strata of society, regardless of the expertise of the producing organization, whether secondary school students or the most accomplished theater artists in the world.

Aristotle believed a play’s story – the story’s unfolding in the ordered incidents of the plot – to be the primary component of the theater experience. (“The greatest part of a drama is the construction of the incidents…Plot, therefore, is the principle element, the soul, of drama.”) An audience’s first objective is to follow and understand the events of the narrative, as they unfold through the characters.

At the other end of Aristotle’s scale is the play’s “spectacle” – the scenery, the costumes, the lighting, the properties, etc., even though Aristotle acknowledges spectacle to be the basic material out of which the story’s plot on stage is manifested. That is why all qualities of spectacle can inexplicably produce the same effects on an audience, if the story’s plot is clear and compelling. A great plot will work its theatrical magic on anything from a bare stage to a David Belasco-archeologically-precise mise-en-scène.
Richard Kalinoski is that rare theatrical artist who knows, consciously or unconsciously, this fundamental theatrical truth. He has fashioned a great plot from the events of the Armenian genocide, the slaughter of millions of Armenian Christians by Islamic Turks. Beast on the Moon tells the tale of two survivors and their escape to America.

The second Aristotelian truth Mr. Kalinoski knows is the difference between history writing and playwriting. The historian tells of the incidents which have happened; the dramatic poet tells of incidents which might have happened. Because of this, the process of playwriting is “both more philosophic and more worthy than history, for making speaks more of universals while history speaks more of particulars.”

In Beast on the Moon, Richard Kalinoski has taken the actual historical facts of Armenian history and, through his poet’s imagination, fashioned a story which, though true to history, achevies universality. It is a play which speaks to all people of all times and of all places. Mr. Kalinoski’s narrator even proclaims this fact in the course of his storytelling: “Gar oo chugar. There was and there was not”.

Robert McKee, Hollywood’s master of storytelling, knows that a story is about “fundamental conflict between subjective expectation and cruel reality.” What could be a greater conflict than that between the subjective expectation that one will age with one’s family in one’s own country and the cruel reality of seeing one’s family slaughtered before one’s own eyes, of being forced to flee for one’s life to a strange land? This is the conflict haunting Mr. Kalinoski’s main charcaters – Aram Tomasian, recently arrived in Racine, Wisconsin, with only a few personal mementos and the hope of creating a new, replacement family for the one he lost; and Seta Tomasian, the teenage orphan girl Aram has purchased through the mail to be his wife and the mother of his children.

Aram and Seta discover that their histories have not ended in their new land, but rather have become crushing psychological burdens in the making of a new family.

Through the particular story of Aram and Seta, Mr. Kalinoski has captured the universal trauma of seeing one’s subjective expectations destroyed, and struggling to overcome one’s past in order to have a healthy future. The struggle involves the most difficult of human actions – forgiving the unforgivable, and trusting another with love after experiencing the worst cruelty imaginable.

Another feature of a great story is resonance. Mr. Kalinoski’s play resonates with both the masterpieces of dramatic literature and the foundational stories of the Judeo-Christian world. Consciously or unconsciously, Mr. Kalinoski’s broad and deep wisdom provides his story with a profound base. Aram descends metaphorically from father Abraham, also an exile heading to a strange land, while Seta descends from Sara, his infertile wife. Aram, at one point, recalls Abraham’s son, Isaac, and Isaac’s difficulty with his own infertile wife.

Mr. Kalinoski makes Aram a photographer by profession, allying him with the stage’s first photographer, Ibsen’s Hjalmar Ekdal. Like Aram, Hjalmar has difficulty with his arranged-marriage wife, and while the Ekdal child sees less and less in the course of the play, the Tomasian child as the adult the Gentleman, sees the whole story. In addition, Seta rebels against the kind of wife Aram wants her to be; she nails her precious doll to his easel, thereby rejecting, through a symbolic action, what Ibsen’s Nora does by abandoning her husband

Michael Menendian’s vigorous and heart-felt production of Beast on the Moon clearly understands the play’s power. His cast is superb. One can get the experience of the so-called “Chicago-style acting” here, raised stakes and wide developmental arcs. (It is the style David Mamet, one of the style’s founders, came to wish paid less attention to emotion and more attention to the power of the unadorned word.) The powerful Matt Browning’s Aram eventually yields to his softer emotions, after first causing us to despair for the future of this couple. Sophia Menendian as Seta carries the burden of the play’s hope with a skill and grace which belies her youth. She is a young actress to watch. Aaron Lamm plays the young Vincent, the Italian orphan who wanders into the Tomasian household, with an infectious naturalness which wins everyone’s heart, while Ron Quade gently narrates the action as the Gentleman, the adult Vincent, who proudly maintains the Tomasian story for posterity.

Aristotle warned that “When storytelling goes bad in society, the result is decadence.” Richard Kalinoski is doing his part to hold back the tide, with great craftsmanship, intelligence, and passion. A trip to the Raven Theater will refresh your memory as to the power of a well-plotted story.

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