The Balkanization of Armenian Theater

The Balkanization of Armenian Theater

Friday, December 28th, 2012

Vahik Pirhamzei’s “Honest Liars” was an exemplar of hybridity


After two dismal years, Armenian theater in Los Angeles managed an
uptick in both the quantity and quality of productions that graced
area stages in 2012. Even when productions were flawed, several were
ambitious in reach. Vahe Berberian delivered a new Armenian-language
play of substance, `Gyank’ (Life); Lilly Thomassian braved the
challenge of `Komitas’; Vahik Pirhamzei displayed his superior comedic
talents (yet again) in `Honest Liars’; and a troupe of young upstarts,
under the direction of Tigran Kirakosyan, served up a delicious
rendition of the absurdist satire `Galank’ (Confinement).

The year’s bounty, however, made me fully appreciate a phenomenon I
had been sensing for some time – namely, the balkanization of Armenian
theater. In this massive Armenian community, which is fragmented into
units of Armenians from Armenia, from Iran, and from various countries
of the Middle East, theater caters to niche subgroups, often to the
exclusion of others.

For the opening night performance of `Gyank,’ for instance, Armenians
with roots in the Middle East comprised the vast majority of a crowd
400 strong; an audience of comparable size for `Honest Liars,’
however, was made up almost exclusively by Armenians from Iran and, to
a lesser extent, Armenia; and when the Organization of Istanbul
Armenians presented a revival of `Mernile Vorkan Tjvar E’ (Dying Is So
Difficult), the matinee I caught seemed as much a bolsahai reunion as
an afternoon of theater.

Why such fragmentation? A key reason is the Armenian language. The
split of the Armenian vernacular into Eastern and Western dialects in
the 19th century extended to the language of drama. Although the
dialects are foundationally similar, Armenians fluent in one are not
necessarily conversant in the other. In addition, each dialect is
peppered with foreign words and idioms that make comprehension a
struggle. Impurities in Eastern Armenian tend to have Russian or
Farsi as their source, while elements of Turkish, Arabic, French, and
English have infiltrated Western Armenian.

Vahe Berberian’s “Gyank” was performed in Western Armenian

Dialect, however, is not the only mark of distinction between Eastern
and Western Armenian drama. Plays written in Eastern Armenian, which
developed under Russian – and, later, Soviet – rule reflect concerns
and themes that differ significantly from writings in Western
Armenian, which evolved under Ottoman rule and, in the post-Genocide
era, became the language of diaspora.

Nowhere do transplants from the Armenian homeland and from diaspora
countries converge like they do in Los Angeles, where both Eastern
Armenian and Western Armenian figure prominently in educational
curricula, cultural production, and media. In the realm of theater,
Armenians from Armenia account for the most output. Indeed, they
boast actors and actresses who were professionally trained in Yerevan,
and who have name recognition and a loyal following, thanks to their
achievements and accolades in the homeland. Their productions tend to
favor larger venues (such as the Alex Theatre in Glendale and its
inferior neighbor, the Beyond the Stars Palace) and, far too often,
commercially motivated – and groan-inducing – farces. Offerings this
year included the insipidly titled `Harsnasu Milionateri Hamar’ (A
Bride for a Millionaire) and a sequel to `Pahanjvume Stakhos 2′ (Liar
Wanted 2) for those who apparently did not have enough of the

Gurgen Khanjyan’s “Galank” was performed in Eastern Armenian

I wish these establishment forces would balance their commercial
endeavors with higher-caliber work. But the mantle of that challenge
may have to be picked up by younger talents, such as Tigran Kirakosyan
and the gifted players he had assembled to tackle Gurgen Khanjyan’s
`Galank’ – a work of heft and gravitas that managed to remain wildly
entertaining. Significantly, that production had crossover appeal,
drawing a mixed crowd of Armenians from different subgroups.

Theater in Western Armenian depends on all-too-few producers. Vahe
Berberian remains the only purveyor of new plays that enrich the
canon, with the Ardavazt Theatre Company – recently renamed the Krikor
Satamian Theatre Company – occasionally dusting off classics or
staging works in translation. This year, a revival of Moushegh
Ishkhan’s `Mernile Vorkan Tjvar E’ was imported from Toronto, but the
production by the Hrant Dink Theater Company proved wanting.

So where will the balkanization of Armenian theater in Los Angeles
lead? If the community’s command and use of Armenian steadily fades,
`Armenian’ theater may actually be created and performed entirely in
English; such a shift is already in progress, though its outcome is
neither pre-ordained nor assured. For the time being, theater artists
will likely explore (and, indeed, should be exploring) forms of
hybridity – or multiplicity – both within the dialects of Armenian,
and between Armenian and English. Vahik Pirhamzei did exactly that in
`Honest Liars,’ pairing its barsgahai characters with hayasdantsi ones
and reaching a wider audience in the process.

Collaboration between Armenian theater artists of different origin
will be imperative to bridging gaps between subgroups of the
community. Of course, theater needs to continue being a reflection of
the all niche groups within the community and should not ignore their
unique concerns, struggles, and desires. In doing so, however,
theater must not lose perspective – that is, sight of a broader
community rich in diversity, complexity, and resources; otherwise, it
risks devolving into provincialism. Striking this balance will be no
easy task, but it will be imperative to turning the tide of

Aram Kouyoumdjian is the winner of Elly Awards for both playwriting
(`The Farewells’) and directing (`Three Hotels’). His latest work is
`Happy Armenians.’ You can reach him or any of the other contributors
to Critics’ Forum at [email protected]. This and all other
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