Shooting at the Moon –
an interview with playwright Richard Kalinoski about "Beast of the Moon"
Louis Zorich as the Gentleman in "Beast on the Moon"
"Beast on the Moon"
Century Center for the Performing Arts, 111 East 15th Street between Union Square and Irving Plaza
Tues.-Sat. 8:00 pm; Sun. 7:30 pm; Sat and Sun. 3:00 pm, $65
For more information, visit www.BeastOnTheMoon.com
Interviewed on May 3, 2005
Portraiture is central in American playwright Richard Kalinoski's "Beast on the Moon," a compelling, award-winning memory play about two survivors of the Armenian genocide that took place in the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
The leading character Aram Tomasian is an Armenian immigrant and aspiring portrait photographer who brought his 15-year-old Armenian picture bride Seta to Milwaukee in 1921.
His father, killed by Turks who invaded his family’s home in 1915, worked as a town clerk and took official photographs for a city in the Ottoman Empire. Aram, who survived the holocaust, eventually takes a job as a portrait photographer for the Jerome Case Company in Milwaukee. Carrying on his father’s lineage, he seeks affirmation of his talents in America.
Aram’s picture of Seta is actually that of an Armenian woman who fell victim to the Turks. But he accepts his new picture bride despite her difference in appearance from the picture-bride photograph. Giving a mirror to his new bride as a gift, Aram creates a tool, says Kalinoski, to make her an extension of him. The playwright decided to use the mirror to give the audience a material emblem of the couple’s emotional efforts to look at themselves and to gain a new sense of self-worth.
Furthermore, Kalinoski introduced a family portrait of Aram’s deceased family with their heads missing to give a strong visual image of his leading character’s obsession with his lost family and his need to rebuild a new family in America.
A Gentleman serves as the avuncular narrator who gives a brief history of the plight of the Armenians and provides insight into the Armenian couple’s search for self-identity in America.
"I decided on a memory play because I was uncomfortable with forcing the two main characters to talk about history. I couldn’t figure out any fashion to have them talk about the history of the holocaust of the Armenians," said Kalinoski from his office at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
In the narrator’s youth, he was an orphaned street urchin named Vincent who, like the couple, is fighting to survive in Milwaukee. He later becomes a surrogate son to the Tomasians.
"I’m not usually comfortable with having a narrator who directly addresses the audience in the play. But in this case I thought in terms of what I wanted to do in the play I couldn’t do it another way," added Kalinoski. "Most Armenians who go to the play don’t know beforehand what happened to the Armenians, so I needed to have some notion about it."
The 57-year-old Racine, Wisconsin native completed a first draft of "Beast on the Moon" in 1992. Inspired by conversations in the early 1970s with his former, third-generation Armenian-American wife’s grandparents who were survivors of the 1915 Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks, he created the character of a child-bride, a stranger to her new husband, both of whom have immigrated to America.
The play premiered at the now-defunct Venture Theater in Philadelphia in 1995. That same year, it captivated critics and theatergoers alike during the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre in Louisville. It has been produced in 17 countries, translated into 12 languages and has won many awards, including five Ace Awards in Argentina and Moliere awards in France in 2001. Its New York debut came on the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide and new productions are planned in Prague, Brazil, Puerto Rico and Armenia in 2005.
Prior to writing a first draft, Kalinoski interviewed would-be scholars, Armenian-Americans and Armenians in Rochester, N.Y. and in Wisconsin. He became intrigued with their accounts of Armenian men attempting to identify eligible brides from a pool of surviving young Armenian women who resided in Istanbul circa 1915.
"I was fascinated by it and studied it further and I felt that there was enough there in terms of a human dynamic to engage me as a playwright," he said.
Drawing further from the plucky courage he saw in his female colleagues at Nazareth College in Rochester, N.Y. and later at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, he began to see his picture bride character as a woman of forbearance and strong will.
"One thing led to another as I studied Armenian culture and survival more and more. I found some resilience there that I had to honor. The idea for Seta grew not only from my being curious and interested, but also from my desire to be respectful of Armenians," he said.
Kalinoski’s research focused on anecdotal history as opposed to an accepted canonical history of Armenians. As a result of his oral interviews with Armenians, he discovered important written accounts of the Armenians’ survival in Turkey in German novelist Franz Werfel’s "Forty Days of the Musa Dagh," Michael Arlen’s autobiography "Passage to Ararat," former U.S. ambassador to Turkey Hans Morganthau’s dispatches and poet Peter Balakian’s "The Black Dog of Fate."
"I was impressed with the fortitude of the Armenians. In Werfel’s novel, there is a group of Armenians who are besieged and surrounded by Turks in a prolonged battle. There’s a hardscrabble fight for their existence. There’s also contextual material in the novel that gave me a sense of the milieu and the cultural context of Armenian life in Turkey," he said.
He read first-hand accounts of the Turkish atrocities in Arlen’s personal story about his father’s life in Armenia. "I saw the horror done to the population," said Kalinoski whose own family tree is part Polish-American, Irish and German.
Kalinoski found material for his use of photographic imagery in the play from an Armenian photographic archive in Watertown, Mass. He talked to the curator, Ruth Tomasian, who has devoted her life to collecting photographs of Armenians.
"As a playwright, I’m always trying to find ways to communicate visually as well as through language," he said.
"Beast on the Moon" is also a story of immigrants adjusting to new customs and daily life in America. "Fundamental to Seta is trying to make do with what she’s been given in life and fundamental to Aram is yearning beyond what he’s been given in life," he said. For Seta, that means finding her place as a strong woman in a new world and helping her husband to overcome his grief and pain at the loss of his old family in the holocaust and finding the strength to rebuild a new family in America.
"I was primarily thinking about the couple’s struggle to survive. The immigrant aspect just enhances it," he said. "I always talk to people about this being an American play about Armenians trying to do what they have to do to survive in the U.S." [Hicks]