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Richard Kalinonski's 'Beast Of The Moon' Is A Near-Perfect Production.

By Dave Irwin

JULY 20, 1998:  GENOCIDE IS A tricky topic for art. Our horror at the atrocities we've committed against ourselves compels us to be more emotionally involved and less judgmental with works (in any media) on this subject.

Richard Kalinoski's finely crafted Beast On The Moon is a sensitive drama of the early 20th-century Armenian extermination that shows us the personal cost of our darker selves. The Borderlands Theatre production counterpoints this serious backdrop with deft touches of personal humor, thanks to the impeccable timing between leads Dwayne Palmer and Angela Michelle Navarro.

The play follows two survivors of the Turkish pogrom in 1915-1918, which killed more than a million and a half people and decimated the rich and ancient Armenian culture.

Aram (played by Palmer), a successful photographer like his father, has migrated to America with the last shreds of his family's legacy. There he selects a mail-order bride from a photograph. But when Seta (Navarro) arrives, the 15-year-old is none of the things that Aram projected into the photograph. Instead of a woman who will bear him sons, Aram finds he's married a scared girl, giddy and hopeful, but still traumatized by the murder of her family. In addition, the sense of tradition that hangs on their shoulders ensures that neither will ever seek any escape from the marriage.

For better or worse, Aram and Seta are a couple, each slowly understanding that they have no choice but to deal with the strengths and weaknesses each brings to the union. The inevitability of their being together heightens the personal drama and tension between them.

Palmer plays Aram with an uncanny timing and delivery, emotionally damaged in ways that only slowly reveal themselves. He gives a perfect performance of a tradition-bound man, reserved and proud; a character who aspires to his father's sternness, but who fortunately can not find it in his heart to be that hard. Palmer gives his character dignity and understated grace, which prevents Aram from slipping into caricature. We easily empathize with the man unable to be the stoic he thinks his wounds should make him, because he still has a child-like sense of love and wonder. Palmer's discipline in never letting his character go over the top in any direction speaks well of his craft.

"I see Aram as devastated by what happened to him as a child," Palmer said after the opening-night performance. "He's got a beautiful heart and the only way he can show it is by giving gifts. As the play progresses, he learns about himself through his new life."

The role of Seta demands more range of its player, as she goes from coquettish girl to dutiful lover, to shamed wife, to resourceful partner. Navarro plays the initial scenes with a too-jagged energy, her gestures flighty and overly self-conscious. Even as her character ages, Navarro seems to grow into the part, becoming more comfortable as Seta matures and proves herself an equal to Aram, despite the cultural requirements of subservience.

The timing and chemistry that Palmer and Navarro bring is immediately apparent. The comedic takes and playful exchanges mercifully take the hard edge off the drama. Their characters are so dissimilar, yet so suited, that we are constantly cheering for them to find the happiness that seems destined to elude them.

Playwright Richard Kalinoski's script is near perfect. The only awkwardness is the narrator's role. His purpose is unclear in the early scenes, since much of what he relates would normally be done by exposition between Aram and Seta. Warmly played by community theatre veteran Dan Baerg, the narrator's purpose eventually reveals itself with the introduction of street urchin Vincent, played by ubiquitous child actor Klaus Collins.

Kalinoski's skill is especially evident in the multiple ways in which he uses photography to illuminate his points. Aram, a photographer, selects his bride from a photo. Seta turns out not to be the girl in the photo, so Aram is immediately forced to face what image means. His photos of Seta give us insight to what he thinks are the important moments. Finally, the mutilated photograph of his family illustrates the incredible horror that Aram has witnessed.

The play debuted in 1995 at the prestigious Humana Festival in Louisville, and has been produced in London, Toronto and Buenos Aires. The playwright flew from New York to consult with Borderlands Director Annette Hillman and the cast for two days to ensure an optimal production.

Beast On The Moon is well worth the two-and-a-half hour investment for its compelling and well-acted tale of the hopes that emerge from our worst moments.


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