Maybe it’s because of Saroyan, the American literary son of Armenia, that Americans discovering Armenian literature have a feeling of deja-vu. Or maybe it’s because Steinbeck’s books were largely based on the Armenian immigrants of California’s San Joaquin Valley, who tilled the fig trees and almond groves through blistering summers with no shade. Americans know the Armenian soul in their guts. So it’s a little surprising that “Sojourn at Ararat” (www.sojournatararat.org), the world stage’s leading performance of Armenian poetry in English, has taken so long to reach New York. The work, performed by the international actors who created it, Nora Armani and Gerald Papasian, will be presented for one night only, January 18, 2010, by Joe’s Pub at the special invitation of NY Shakespeare Festival’s Artistic Director, Oskar Eustis.
The play originally premiered at the Edinburgh International Fringe Festival in 1986. Since then it has toured four continents and more than 25 cities worldwide, receiving accolades and awards, with both its original cast and subsequent casts directed by its authors. The Joe’s Pub performance will be a reunion of Armani and Papasian in their original roles.
The show evokes identity, homeland and love while illuminating the soul of the Armenian people through its poetry, literature and legends. The Armenian people are personified as a man and a woman, played by Papasian and Armani. Forty classic poems from Armenian writers, from pre-Christian to modern times, make up the text and many of the translations are by the performers. Spoken sections are intertwined with songs and vocal underscores. Underlying it all is a haunting score, sometimes modern and sometimes folk. The effect is an evening of epic proportions, revealing the spirit of a people and a nation. Music is by Armenian composers Gomidas and Sayat Nova. Additional compositions are by Jean-Jacques Lemetre of Theatre de Soleil of Paris (Ariane Mnouchkine’s company).
The absurdity of conflicts and war is depicted with scathingly humorous and poignantly nostalgic moments of sublime literature. The fulcrum of the show is an epic piece, “One Drop of Honey,” written by Hovhannes Toumanyan, considered to be one of the greatest Armenian poets and writers (this year is the 140th anniversary of his birth), where the absurdity of war and human conflict is depicted in a highly humorous fashion, as one drop of honey becomes the cause of universal war and massacres. The couple meets and falls in love as romantic era poems are used in a lyrical way during beginning tableaux. In relatively more dramatic sections, the horrors of the 1915 Genocide are narrated through a powerful eyewitness account of the dance of 20 innocent virgins who were doused in kerosene and torched to death.
The piece has toured internationally in English and French, but has never been done in New York, mainly because since its North American premiere in 1987 (at Ensemble Studio Theatre, Hollywood), its creators have lived and worked primarily in Paris and L.A. It was Pick of the Week in LA Weekly and received eight Drama Logue Critics’ Awards in 1988 and 1989. It also received multiple awards in Armenia in 1991.
Gerald Papasian was born in Egypt into a musical and artistic Armenian family. He holds an MFA in Directing form the Yerevan State Institute of Art and Theatre of the Stanislavski School and he studied in LA with teachers of the Lee Strasberg Institute. A founding member of the Irina Brook (daughter of the legendary Peter Brook) Theatre Company in Paris, he is currently touring with Ms. Brook’s productions of “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Don Quixote.” His notable stage work includes several works of Shaw, that he directed and performed in Los Angeles, London, Cairo and Yerevan, and “Much Ado about Nothing,” for which he was awarded the “Golden Star” by the California Motion Picture Council. In France, he has appeared in leading roles in classics by Gogol, Moliere and Shakespeare. Among his numerous translations is Armen Tigranian’s opera “Anoush,” which he also directed at the Michigan Opera Theater in 1981 and again in 2001 at the Detroit Opera Theatre. (Local press labeled it “Best of the M.O.T. Season.”) He restored the original score (in collaboration with Haig Avakian) and book of Tchouhadjian’s “Arshak II” (Arsace II). The work had its world premiere at San Francisco Opera in 2001, directed by Francesca Zambello.
He has translated, adapted and directed “Taparnigos, Ladies’ Dentist” by Hagop Baronian in London and the USA (Washington, Boston and New York). He created and directed the French version of the same at the Theatre Firmin Gemier in Antony (Paris suburb) and the Theatre Dejazet in Paris. He was recently awarded the Movses Khorenatsi medal by the president of the Republic of Armenia; it is considered the highest possible award in the Republic. He has been based in Paris since 1993, where his career includes acting and directing for theater, TV and film. Most recently, he was featured in a multiple award-winning, soon to be released film, “8th Wonderland.”
It is ironic that “Sojourn to Ararat,” with its great international stature, never before reached New York. After its North American premiere in L.A. in the late ’80s, its creators were drawn to live and work primarily in Paris. Nora Armani began to divide her time between Paris and London in the late 90’s, but Gerald Papasian remained based in Paris, so when they collaborated, it was in Europe. Four years ago, Armani returned to NYC. This production is a rare reunion of the duo, who, after two marriages and two divorces from each other, are reuniting to recreate their most successful production together.
The show has enjoyed a resurgence of interest since a Los Angeles production in 2007 demonstrated that it could be successfully produced without the authors in the two parts. Nora Armani directed the production, with Korken Alexander and Mary Kate Schellhardt as “He” and “She.” Backstage West (Jeff Favre) declared, “Sojourn at Ararat premiered 20 years ago, but the poems it incorporates remain timely and timeless – and they are a worthwhile experience for anyone, regardless of cultural background.”
The performance will be January 18 at 7:30 pm (one night only), presented by Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, NYC. General Admission is $15 in advance; $20 at the door. The box office is reachable at http://tickets.publictheater.org. For more info see the show’s website, www.sojournatararat.org.