From left, Rachel Sorsa, Robertson Dean, John Perrin Flynn, and Leslie Ayvazian / Michelle Hanzelova
LOS ANGELES—Rogue Machine, which earned the Best Season Ovation Award for 2017, is known for pushing the theatrical envelope with edgy, often hard-hitting shows. These hot potato topics range from Western colonialism in Africa in Lorraine Hansberry’s Les Blancs to racism at home in Mexican Day, Dutch Masters and One Night in Miami to contemporary anti-fascism in Daytona to psycho-sexual angst in bled for the household truth and Cock, et al.
But with its world premiere of 100 Aprils Rogue Machine is tackling its heaviest topic yet: Genocide. Playwright/co-star Leslie Ayvazian’s one-acter takes a deep dive into the 1915 ethnic cleansing of Armenians and the trans-generational PTSD that is passed down to its characters in a 1982 hospital psychiatric ward. In dramatizing the mass murder of Armenians 100 Aprils is unrelentingly depressing.
For most of the 80-minute or so play John (John Perrin Flynn) is confined to a hospital bed, attended by his wife Beatrice (Ayvazian), daughter Arlene (Rachel Sorsa), Nurse (Janet Song) and Ahmet (Robertson Dean). Dean actually plays a dual role: Under the influence of his meds and PTSD, in a drug-induced state John’s mind wanders back and forth in time. Apparently, Ahmet—who is a doctor—is of Turkish ethnicity, and John imagines him to be one of the Turks he saw carrying out unspeakable crimes against humanity during the Armenian Genocide when John was a five-year-old eyewitness to the mass slaughter.
John is also a doctor, but in his present state he is clearly unable to fulfill that classical Greek (and Biblical) edict: “Physician, heal thyself.” Sorsa’s Arlene is a sexually repressed librarian, a repository of the trans-generational PTSD passed down to her that seems to deny her personal happiness. On the one hand, Ayvazian’s choice of the daughter’s profession is trite, as female librarians are stereotyped as old maids and matrons, notably Marion the Librarian in The Music Man. But in another way, the playwright’s choice is quite clever, because as the daughter of an Armenian genocide survivor and of an Armenian mother (I don’t believe Aprils specifies whether or not Beatrice witnessed the carnage herself), Arlene is—like a librarian—the keeper and preserver of the records and archives, in this case of unforgettable inhumane cruelty. The name “Arlene” means to “pledge.”
Arlene can never forget. In my own life I’ve met members of groups earmarked for persecution who seemed to me to perpetuate a trauma passed down from one generation to another. I’ve seen this in survivors of the Holocaust and of the Hollywood Blacklist, hysterias and horrors that have marred and scarred their tortured psyches.
Having said all this, while this may be the stuff of great drama, Aprils is no fun to watch onstage. It’s certainly well acted, with Michael Arabian skillfully directing the Aprils ensemble. Rogue Machine’s co-founder and artistic director Flynn, who told me this was the first time in 30 years he was acting (other than as a stand-in), proves his talents extend beyond directing. But infrequent attempts to lighten the mood don’t dispel the doom and gloom emanating from the stage. These are no Aprils fools.
That’s not to say it is a bad (or, for that matter, good) play. Nor am I saying there’s no place on the stage for works such as Aprils. But can depression and other dark subject matter be presented on the live stage in a way that doesn’t bum the audience out? The superb production of Long Day’s Journey into Night at the Wallis Annenberg is a case in point. O’Neill’s epic focuses on one family (although it may possess universal themes about the human condition, husbands and wives, parents and offspring), while Aprils seeks to unravel the collective saga of grief and despair of an entire people. Surely the stage must address the distressing parts of life, as well as be a source of amusement and entertainment. Occasionally it’s all of this—along with enlightening.
Narine, a member of the audience born and raised in Armenia when it was part of the Soviet Union, thought that tales of the genocide against her people should be “sad” in tone, rather than “angry.” She was chagrined by a scene wherein Beatrice and Arlene assault the Turkish Ahmet, a scene filled with sexual frisson, especially regarding Arlene, about whom there is no indication she currently or has ever had a romantic partner.
Aside from mass murder itself, what may enrage and obsess survivors and descendants is the denial that these horrible human rights abuses ever occurred. As it is said in Death of a Salesman about Willy Loman in another context, “Attention must be paid!” to historic wrongs and horrors. And following acknowledgement, there must be an effort to right the wrong.
This tragedy about genocide is for more adventurous ticket buyers with a leaning toward the serious, who don’t mind being challenged and even depressed by a tough-to-take drama, and for those who may even go to the theater seeking some sort of emotional catharsis and release.
100 Aprils runs Sat. and Mon. at 8:30 pm, and Sun. at 3:00 pm through July 16 (no performance on Mon., June 25). Rogue Machine is located in The Met, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Los Angeles 90029. Reservations: (855) 585-5185 or www.roguemachinetheatre.com.
L.A.-based reviewer/historian Ed Rampell is co-presenting “Marx @ 200: The Marxist Movie Series.” For a schedule and more information see here.