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.

Thanks to the performances and exquisitely understated direction and design, Stage West's Beast on the Moon goes down as smooth and silky as buttermilk, which is what regular patrons have come to expect from Stage West. But if they're not careful, this company might get a bad reputation among lesser playwrights: Put your mediocre script in their hands, and watch every flaw floodlit by the top-drawer production elements that surround it.

Beast on the Moon runs through July 11. Call (817) STG-WEST.

Banter
Claude Albritton, laid-back Dallas rich guy and primary funding force behind the McKinney Avenue Contemporary, is happy to take time off from watching "America get its ass kicked" during World Cup TV to chat. He is open, but suspicious: "I don't mind talking to you, but what do you want to talk about?"

I want to talk about the MAC's plans to add a new 150- to 175-seat theater space to its current facility. But I'm also a journalist, a sub-species of human that hasn't always pleased Albritton since he broke MAC ground in April of 1994. The Dallas Observer wrote a story alleging internal disorganization. ("She was digging for something," says Albritton, "but I'm not sure what she found.") Then The Met printed information about the previous job troubles of a then-staffer at the MAC that was "a shit goddamn dirty trick," he claims. "[The writer] tried to make us look like a den of thieves."

Albritton pauses. "I hate the truth," he says, then melts the frost with laughter.

Albritton is most unusual for a Dallas arts patron; unlike, say, a Stanley Marcus or a Ruth Sharp Altshuler, he appears to care at least as much about local artists as he does about reeling in Impressionist exhibits and international opera stars. His office is filled with visual works by local and Texas artists. The proof is in the MAC itself, which as he correctly points out has hosted "75 percent of the performing artists who, if not local, are at least Texas." And now, the proposed addition of about 2,000 new square feet, most of it for a theater that would be "sort of a blackbox, but with some permanent seating." The new stage would eliminate some office space at the MAC and a little bit of parking, pending permission from city zoners.

"They look the other way on parking issues when you're talking about a restaurant, or anything else that makes money," Albritton notes. "I hope they'll realize that a new MAC space would be a contribution to Dallas arts. But you never know; the people who're in charge of promoting uptown development never tout the MAC as an important presence in the area."

The new theater, which Albritton optimistically projects could be open by next spring, has had a swarm of input from local theater artists, including obvious folks like Kitchen Dog residents Dan Day and Tim Johnson; the Undermain's Raphael Parry; and non-theater folks like the Dallas Video Festival's Bart Weiss and Rick Brettell. Brettell was brought in because of his architectural knowledge, but "this will not be a world-famous architectural triumph. I'm a cheap bastard. We're focusing on functionality here."

The big question is: how much will this venue help alleviate Dallas' theater-space crisis? Hopefully some, but Albritton can't make any promises.

"We don't have plans to put any resident companies there," he says. "Kitchen Dog will have a lot of say about what happens. But we definitely want to include local companies as much as possible. New Theatre is exploring the possibility of staging two shows there in the fall of 1999. Fred Curchack might do some performances there. I've always wanted to give the home team a lift."

Albritton's support of the MAC, which has imported internationally recognized performance artists like Ann Carlson to create some decidedly noncommercial stuff, is commendable precisely because he knows he's not likely to turn a profit with the facility any time soon. Albritton is the leading Dallas patron for smaller, darker, funkier visual and performing arts. Attendance for that style of art is, of course, wildly unpredictable.

"It can get pretty lonely over here sometimes," he admits. "And I'd love to tell you we're expanding because Kitchen Dog is turning 'em away at the gate. They do pretty well, but it's just not the case."

Then again, times are tough all over for the arts. As Albritton notes: "If you pulled all those student groups they walk through the Dallas Museum of Art, how many people would you have left?"

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