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The Nature of the Beast 

Beast on the Moon is a novel struggling to be a play

Wednesday, Mar 20 1996
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Among the problems of literature that can keep me entertained for hours is the question of what distinguishes one discipline from another. Why is a play such a wholly different animal from, say, a novel? And what happens when the two collide? As demonstrated in the Eureka Theatre Company's latest outing, Beast on the Moon, nothing very dramatic, if you'll pardon the expression. Written by Richard Kalinoski and directed in its West Coast premiere by David Parr, Beast neither roars nor inspires awe. Instead it falls through its own structural cracks and struggles for theatrical footing in a self-created neutral zone.

Like other plays that seem closer to narrative fiction than drama, Beast makes use of a narrator (called here, simply, a Gentleman, and tenderly portrayed by Leo Downey) who delivers the story retrospectively -- a technique that casts the proceedings in the luminous sheen of memory. When used effectively (as in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie or Brian Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, to name two) the narrator can serve the play's thematic concerns and facilitate the action. But in worthy failures like Beast on the Moon, the narrator makes a very strong case for recasting the story in another medium. Fiction, for instance. For all its dramatic properties -- potentially dynamic characters, a rich historic context, the playwright's skillful use of recurring imagery -- Beast works best when its story is being told, not acted out.

Set by the narrator against echoes of the 1915 holocaust in Turkey (in which some 3 million Armenians were either slaughtered or exiled), Beast spans 12 years beginning in 1921 in Milwaukee: Refugee photographer Aram Tomasian (Justin Bloomer), the sole survivor of his family, has just imported a mail-order "picture bride," Seta (Valerie de Jose). Aram is shocked to learn that his new wife is not the actual girl whose photo he selected. She died, Seta explains briefly. As the two bore a marked resemblance to one another, the orphanage has sent him the dead girl's portrait in place of hers.

Everything about Aram (in Bloomer's sturdy if plodding performance) is serious and conscientious. His purpose, as he sees it, is to help create a new Armenian society based on the customs and traditions in which he was raised. He is a photographer because his father was a photographer. He will read the Bible at meals -- always passages that instruct on the silent obedience of the ideal wife -- because that is what his father did. And, most importantly, he will fill in the holes in the family portrait he keeps prominently displayed -- gaps he has made by cutting out the faces of his murdered family.

If Aram finds Seta's childishness disturbing ("You are 15! You are a woman!" he rails), her fear of sex is downright unnerving. She becomes hysterical as he tries to initiate "the business of marriage." Finally she tells him how she witnessed the rape of her older sister, and how, when Aram clumsily persists and tries to force himself on her, she sees not her husband, but her sister's murderer.

Aram is the prosaic defender of the home, but Seta (as played by de Jose) is its life and spark. She settles into her new surroundings gratefully (the comfortable and attractive set is by Peter Crompton, the lights by Scott Paul Cannon, and costumes by Callie Floor). She refuses to let him rob her of her spirit or her humor. But sadly and critically, as the years pass, it is apparent that she is barren and unable to provide him with the children they both desire so desperately.

Enter the narrator, who appears now as Vincent (played alternately by Jude Willis and Dan Kurtz -- performed with panache by Kurtz the night I attended), a homeless boy reduced in 1933 to stealing in the Milwaukee grocery where Seta shops. She takes Vincent in, and, in the play's genuinely affecting climax, gives him what she assumes is an old coat of Aram's. This innocent gesture of generosity finally forces Aram to tell her of the coat's origins and the circumstances of his family's death at the hands of the Turks; it also makes the creation of a new family unit of sorts possible.

All of this is rich ground on which to grow a play. And, according to the advance materials, Beast on the Moon's 1995 debut in the world-renowned Humana Festival of New Plays in Louisville was a huge success. Why, then, is the current Eureka production such a sluggish, well-meaning bore?

Two reasons, only one of which concerns the question of novel vs. play, which I'll leave you to ruminate about at your leisure. (Try it; it's a lot of fun. As I see it, the answer lies in the inherent differences between a story whose main vehicle is language vs. one meant to be delivered through action.) Beast is burdened by a structure that gives information via the narrator, and then repeats it excessively in the scenes that follow.

Aram's and Seta's conflicted efforts to create a marriage are wholly predictable. Neither the playwright nor the director (nor the actors, in spite of their competent performances) have found a way to make the obvious fresh and new. We know that Aram's intention of playing the authoritarian is doomed the second we meet the generically irrepressible Seta. The protracted scene in which they duke it out with Bible verses (sort of, "I'll see your Proverbs and raise you one Genesis"), clearly intended to yield a good laugh, is only mildly amusing. Instead of scenes that build dramatic momentum, they function instead as mere illustrations of the characters' problems and concerns.

Nothing Aram or Seta does is surprising or unexpected. We understand each of them far sooner than they understand one another. When Aram finally blurts out that the defaced photographic portrait he keeps on display is "his hope," she says, "I didn't know" -- an admission that was patently obvious. The most poignant and affecting interchange occurs when the boy Vincent asks Aram, "Are all Armenians orphans?" The tortured husband and would-be father replies, simply, "Yes."

The second reason involves Parr's pacing, which seems deliberately slow, as though he thought the audience would not be able to follow the interactions of theme and story. The audience would do fine, I suspect, if Parr knew how to build the central conflict: humanity's shared problem of survival in a world where, as the narrator tells us in one of his lyrical asides, whole groups of people are exterminated as though they were beasts on the moon.

Beast on the Moon runs through April 14 at Bayfront Theatre in S.F.; call 243-9895.

About The Author

Mari Coates

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