History is filled with examples of memorable events that remind us how great humanity is. It’s also filled with events that reveal the dark side of humankind. Among them is the Armenian genocide of 1915-16, perpetrated by the Ottoman Turkish government, which resulted in the deaths of 1.5 million of this Christian minority in a Muslim state.
It’s this tragedy that forms the basis of Richard Kalinoski’s haunting play “Beast on the Moon,” which opens Aug. 23 at the International City Theatre at the Long Beach Performing Arts Center.
Kalinoski’s play debuted in 1995 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. The intimate four-actor show has subsequently been performed in 15 countries, winning more than 30 awards (including five Moliere Awards in Paris and five Ace Awards in Buenos Aires, and taking the award for best play in both cities).
The Holocaust comes to mind as another prime example of horrific crimes against the human race, and International City Theatre Artistic Director caryn desai, who doesn’t use capital letters to depict her name, told the Journal, “Anyone that survives this kind of trauma and genocide, I don’t think you ever forget. The difference is with the Holocaust you knew who the villain was. It was Hitler, and Germany had to accept responsibility for what they did. In this case, Turkey still has not. I think that must be especially painful — not to have someone acknowledge what they did to your family.”
“Beast on the Moon” begins in 1921 Milwaukee — six years after the genocide — and all the scenes take place in the dining room of Aram Tomasian, an Armenian immigrant who has paid to bring over a 15-year-old Armenian orphan, Seta, to be his wife. Burdened with the loss of their families and unable to have a child of their own, the scarred survivors struggle toward understanding and reconciliation.
In her role as Seta, actress Rachel Weck drew on her own experiences to help develop the character. While studying musical theater at UCLA, Weck, who isn’t Jewish, participated in a Jewish studies program to launch student-curated audio tours at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. As part of that program, the students met and interviewed Holocaust survivors and it was during this time that she formed a close bond with one
of the survivors — Helen Freeman — who died in 2017.
“Her story has stuck with me,” Weck said. “Seta is 15 when she immigrates to the U.S. as a mail-order bride. Helen was also young [when she came here] and there is something about Helen’s beauty and her belief in goodness in people. I will be drawing from Helen in playing Seta.”
In the play, Seta clings to a homemade doll, the one thing she has kept from her mother. Weck relates this to Freeman, who was able to keep and hide one earring from her mother — in the lining of her shoe — for years.
“Helen was in multiple work camps as well as Auschwitz and, throughout her entire journey, she carried this one earring,” Weck said. “I remember her so vividly telling me that every time she felt like giving up and just crawling into a hole in the ground, she would touch her shoe with the earring and she would be reminded of her family.”
Even though the play covers events beginning more than a century ago, its relevance to the plight of refugees today resonates.
“I think that’s the beauty of the play,” desai said. “Even though it is taking place in the 1920s and 1930s, the issues being talked about are still relevant and it make you question whether we are ever going to move forward.”
Continuing to work toward a better society is crucial, she added, “because without that, we are defeated. We just have to be reminded and vigilant to continue that struggle.”
Weck concurred. “There is this line in the play that is so ironic,” she said.
“ ‘America, it is so easy for immigrants to get in. It seems like they welcome everyone.’ We read that line and just laughed. It is just a shocking world that we would turn away such pain and suffering after having hundreds of years of knowledge. That is what’s so disappointing.”
Dreaming of a better world, Weck said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could watch this play and say, ‘Oh, I’m so glad this was in the past?’ instead of saying, ‘Oh, this is still going on and these are the choices we continue to make.’ We continue to turn people away and turn a blind eye toward suffering. It is really upsetting.”
“Beast on the Moon” runs Aug. 23 through Sept. 8. Visit internationalcitytheatre.org.