Beast on the Moon

Apple Tree Theatre

By Adam Langer

What’s most troublesome about the critical plaudits accorded Richard Kalinoski’s Beast on the Moon (winner of a 1996 American Theatre Critics Association award, the 1992 Theatre-in-the-Works national playwriting contest, and the 1993 South Carolina Playwrights Festival, and entrant in the prestigious 1995 Humana Festival of New Plays) is that it probably deserves them. Although this drama about genocide survivors is neither subtle nor extraordinarily profound, it’s something of a rarity in this era of sensationalism, rip-off artistry, and TV sitcoms and cop shows posing as theater. Even ten years ago, when American drama did not seem quite so moribund, Beast on the Moon would no doubt have hovered somewhere near the middle of the pack, as a well-constructed, reasonably intelligent, politically relevant piece of theater. But today it stands out as the cream of a relatively barren crop.

Reminiscent in theme and symbolic subtlety of Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass, a heavy-handed drama of emotional and physical paralysis in the face of the Holocaust, Beast on the Moon addresses the plight of Armenian immigrants who survived a Turkish-led attack in 1915 (Kalinoski claims that Hitler used the Armenian genocide as a model for the Holocaust). Set in 1920s Milwaukee, the play takes its title from a historical incident in which Turks allegedly tried to shoot the “beast” that was blocking the moon during a lunar eclipse, then turned their rifles on their Armenian neighbors. For Aram Tomasian, a portrait photographer, and his sweet, bubbly mail-order bride Seta, the beast is also a symbol for the horrors they endured in Armenia, beyond which they cannot move. Their futile efforts to have children and overcome their past are related by an old man named Vincent who came into the Tomasians’ life as a young, impish delinquent and became their surrogate son.

Kalinoski moves his play nimbly through the first ten years or so of Aram and Seta’s marriage, as they evolve from fear and misunderstanding through mutual hostility toward an acceptance of each other and their past. The author skillfully guides us through trivial and gut-wrenching revelations alike, which are rarely surprising but still pack an emotional punch. Kalinoski constructs tight, lyrical scenes, and he writes crisply and sometimes even powerfully, as in Aram’s revelatory climactic monologue, describing in minute detail the murders that have made him icy, distant, and obsessed with passing on his family name.

But when more than mere competence and well-paced dialogue are called for, Kalinoski doesn’t measure up. The Tomasians’ individual sufferings are symbolized none too shrewdly by the artifacts to which they cling. Throughout the play the innocent, frigid Seta clutches a doll her slain mother made, while Aram displays a profound attachment to his father’s coat, which shielded him from the Turks, and a picture of his family, their heads sliced out to represent their decapitation.

Rarely does Kalinoski delve deeply or critically enough into his characters to produce more than a surface understanding of their problems. Much is made of Seta Tomasian’s inability to have children–but Kalinoski never seems to entertain the possibility that perhaps it’s Aram who’s infertile. The playwright also pays scant attention to the fact that Aram chose a 15-year-old-girl for his bride. What would seem to be a rather chilling scene of male aggression bordering on abuse and perversion, when Seta resists Aram’s initial sexual advances by hiding under the kitchen table, is written as if for laughs; Aram chides her immaturity and lures her out from under the table with a stick of gum. Although there would seem to be many logical reasons why a 15-year-old girl would not want to go to bed immediately with an older man and a stranger, Kalinoski explains her trepidation solely in terms of her past: she saw a Turk rape her sister. “I saw a Turk. I saw him in your face,” Seta tells Aram, leading him to gaze into a mirror and intone ponderously, “You saw a Turk? In me? In my face?”

Occasionally when Kalinoski loses his way, he lapses into cliches. A dinner table argument in which Seta and Aram quote Bible verses back and forth at each other feels both hackneyed and stilted. Some of Seta’s emotional outbursts sound more like theatrical dialogue than plausible conversation (“I’m a dead person living too!”). And the narrator’s frequent interruptions often seem superfluous or repetitive: “There was something crawling around inside of him, looking for a way out.”

More disappointing is Kalinoski’s refusal to confront psychological issues not explained by Aram and Seta’s dismal past. Presumably Kalinoski, in trying to be respectful of the little-known tragedy of Armenia, chose to sidestep any controversy that might have made his play deeper or more resonant. The author hints at but never has the nerve to follow through on a potentially jarring, twisted direction as the emotionally frustrated Seta sublimates her maternal urges by feeding and bathing poor neighborhood boys. Instead of using this element to give Seta an ironic edge, Kalinoski offers it as further proof of her angelic qualities. When the young ruffian Vincent enters the Tomasians’ lives and incites an argument between them, one suspects that Beast on the Moon might veer into another peculiar direction. But again Kalinoski uses the incident only to introduce the expected revelations, leading to an effective two-hankie denouement that’s somehow too neat and predictable.

An equally elegant and reverential approach is taken by the ever-professional and refined Apple Tree Theatre, under the smooth direction of Gary Griffin. As Aram and Seta, Mervon Mehta and Albena Dodeva are thoroughly admirable and believable; the silken-voiced Jim Mohr as the narrator adds a touch of intelligence and class. And Stephen Gnojewski as the young Vincent injects needed life and humor into the play. Skill and grace abound in this production, one of the finest I’ve seen in many a month. Would that such praise meant more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard Studio.