Genocide's children

Despite great acting and a near-flawless production, Beast on the Moon is pretty toothless

All human life may be precious, but the arbiters of popular and scholarly history can be pretty forgetful when it comes to meting out posterity. Take genocide, a practice honed in the 20th century whose episodes have produced vastly disparate amounts of attention. Germany's Holocaust has spawned a bona fide commercial industry of film and scholarship and is regularly and promiscuously invoked as a symbol by aggrieved minority representatives from AIDS policy protesters to African-American activists. Meanwhile, Bosnia's more recent attempts at ethnic cleansing have been flooded with an ocean of editorial ink--much of it guilt-ridden hand-wringing about risking American lives to intervene in centuries-old foreign conflicts--that suggests at least a few more decades of intense scrutiny.

And then there's the Turkish massacre of more than two million Armenians that climaxed in 1915. How long did your European history professor dwell on that one?

The Armenian pogroms were more like Rwandan neighbor mobs than the Third Reich's homicidal bureaucracy, as roving groups of Turks shot, stabbed, and dismembered entire Armenian families from a combination of racial hatred and economic resentment. Adult survivors as well as orphans immigrated in large numbers to American cities, where they settled in mixed-ethnic neighborhoods and attempted to share new households with the horror of their memories.

The crowded 20th-century revue of man's inhumanity has pushed this tragedy to the backstage, which may be one of the reasons why Richard Kalinoski's Beast on the Moon has been draped in such lavish critical praise since its full-scale debut at the 1995 Humana Festival of New American Plays. A year later, Kalinoski's script received the Osborn Award from the American Theatre Critic's Association, which goes to show--revelation!--that critics can be as foolish as audience members when they make en masse decisions.

Beast on the Moon, given a typically sparkling, sometimes stirring production by Fort Worth's Stage West, succeeds as neither an immigrant saga nor a marriage comedy nor even as individual-confronts-the-tyranny-of-history dramatic exorcism. Vague attempts are made at all three throughout this two-act look at 12 years in the marriage of two Armenian orphans who've settled in Milwaukee. Kalinoski doesn't so much integrate these elements as present them to us as an alternating series of thumbnail sketches, constantly reshuffling the same hastily scrawled images so we are repeatedly reminded of how unfocused, disconnected, and generic Kalinoski's characters and themes really are.

Scenes open and close at various times with narration from The Gentleman (Jack Robinson), a highly articulate but mysterious American stranger whose knowledge about the characters' pasts is explained only during the second act. The Gentleman introduces us to two young Armenian immigrants, Aram (Bart Myers) and Seta (Amy Acker), even as they make uneasy introductions to each other. The year is 1921, and Aram has already settled in a Milwaukee ghetto and established himself as a commercial and portrait photographer. He has chosen his wife, Seta, a 15-year-old Armenian refugee and an orphaned survivor like himself, from a photograph...except she's not the girl in the photo he selected. The honeymoon misfires, miscommunicates, and conflicts, and if played at a more raucous comic pace, would be perfect as scenes from the consummation of Latka and Simka's sit-com marriage on Taxi.

The problem with Kalinoski's script is that these fractious lovers never really transcend the initial impressions we get of them. This is a fairly routine critical complaint that makes no sense outside of a theater--many people spend their whole lives trapped inside a superficial version of themselves. But when you're talking about a man who has seen his family's heads dangling from a clothesline, and a young woman who watched her sister raped and murdered, we'd like to get a sense of where and how fast the demons that possess these people have steered them. He's an emotionally repressed, authoritarian Bible-thumper, while she's the bright, bold remnant of a middle-class intellectual family that clearly allowed Seta more freedom than Aram thinks a woman should have. Their horrific pasts seem almost incidental to this equation in Kalinoski's script. To top it off, the play rather abruptly introduces an Italian neighborhood orphan (Tim McCarthy), whom Seta seemingly adopts as both comrade in aloneness and a substitute for the child she cannot conceive because of past starvation.

The one place where Stage West director Jerry Russell colludes with Kalinoski's disconnectedness is in the direction of McCarthy as Seta and Aram's orphan. The actor offers a seamless interpretation of a very familiar type--jaunty, soot-faced, quick-witted but crude street kid--and decks out the saucy urchin with an accent that you might hear in Italian enclaves in Milwaukee, but has come to be more associated with Brooklyn. McCarthy would be smashing were he in one of those Kaufman and Hart musicals from the '30s about a young wastrel rising through the ranks of some scandal-ridden industry, but he is utterly distracting and out of place in this show.

Bart Myers as Aram and Amy Acker as Seta fare much better. Myers has the more constricted of the two roles--in part because of design, and in part because of the author's lax character development--but he manages to deliver a variety of tangled emotions through the mask of a perpetually disapproving, squinty frown. Acker is a knockout, vulnerable without being wussy, scared and curious at the same time in her younger incarnation and then a brave, impassioned confronter of her and her husband's sorrow at the end. I sincerely hope this confident, graceful, smoothly expressive actress makes more appearances on area stages.

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