“Before There Was the Holocaust”
With Joyce Van Dyke’s Daybreak, the Pan-Asian Repertory, whose 41-year list of plays includes works related mainly to East, South, and Southeast Asia, moves to Asia’s western border, Turkey (five percent of which is in Europe). Its compelling subject: the repercussions of the Armenian genocide of 1915, in which Turkey was responsible for 1.5 million deaths. Nicole Ansari. Photo: John Quincy Lee.
Nowhere nearly as prolific a theatrical subject as the Holocaust, which came later, the Armenian genocide has inspired only a small list of plays, most of them fairly recent. They include Richard Kalinosky’s Beast on the Moon, Anoush Baghdassarian’s, FOUND, Devon Jackson's Nameless, Lorne Shirinian’s Exile in the Cradle, and Neil McPherson’s I Wish to Die Singing—Voices from the Armenian Genocide.
|Robert Najarian, Tamara Sevunts, Michael Irvin Pollard. Photo: John Quincy Lee.|
Daybreak treats its delicate subject in the form of a dream play in which the events move around surrealistically in time and space, reality and imagination. This approach has both its dividends and drawbacks. It allows the playwright to have the waking scenes set in 1938 and 1982, but to instantly shift back to 1915 or into the future of 2018, when the leading character (dead by then) can appear at the age of 130.
|Nicole Ansari, Melis Aker, Michael Irvin Pollaerd, Tamara Sevunts, Robert Najarian. Photo: John Quincy Lee.|
Difficulties arise when the dream/reality structure creates confusion about the where, when, and who of the action, including which parts are happening at the time of their enactment, and which are memories or dreams. Moreover, the conceit is hard to sustain for the 2018 scene, whose contents are more fantasy than dream.
|Robert Najarian, Nicole Ansari. Photo: John Quincy Lee.|
Some of the muddle could be ameliorated by a more imaginative staging. A step in the right direction is taken by Sheryl Liu’s evocative set of door and window frames over which hang a half-dozen chairs of different types. And Dina El Aziz's efficient costumes suitably express who's wearing them. But Lucie Tiberghien’s too literal, flatly paced direction only partly succeeds in creating the kind of transitions between the varying levels of reality. These might have been clarified by a more theatrically versatile use of Marie Yokoyama’s lights and Kate Marvin’s sounds. Projections might also have been of considerable help.
|Michael Irvin Pollard, Nicole Ansari, Angela Pierce. Photo: John Quincy Lee.|
Van Dyke’s play, emotionally moving in spite of its several flaws, is based on the experiences of her grandmother, grandfather, and her grandmother’s best friend. The women, whose first husbands were killed, were deported from the city of Mezireh (now Elazig) and marched with their ten children through the desert. The children all died while their mothers survived, immigrated to America, remarried, and had one child each.
|Nicole Ansari, Tamara Sevunts. Photo: John Quincy Lee.|
The 90-minute, three-scene play uses six actors; all, except Nicole Ansari, who plays the grandmother, Elmas, here called Victoria, double in other roles. Aside from an inconsistent accent here and some overacting there, the cast acquits itself well, with Ansari outstanding as the proud, defiant, bitter, theatrical, and maternal heroine.
|Melis Aker, Nicole Ansari. Photo: John Quincy Lee.|
The action begins realistically enough in 1938 in Providence, R.I., following a disastrous local flood bearing metaphorical resonances to what happened in Turkey. Victoria lives there with her curmudgeonly second husband, Harry (Michael Irvin Pollard), and her 14-year-old daughter, Rose (Tamara Sevunts). Victoria loves being an actress with the an Armenian church group, an avocation that opens the play for several metatheatrical moments.
|Michael Irvin Pollard, Nicole Ansari. Photo: John Quincy Lee.|
Much as she wants to forget, Victoria can’t resist daydreaming about the dramatic circumstances surrounding her and her friend Varter’s (Sevunts) deportation by the Turks. Thrust by her memories into the past, we witness the 14-year-old Varter’s wedding to the handsome Mr. Nazarian (Robert Najarian), replete with the company doing a lively Armenian folk dance. Then comes the governor’s order that the Armenian women and children must leave, and the horrible sacrifices that follow on the dusty path to Aleppo.
|Front: Robert Najarian, Nicole Ansari, Angela :Pierce; rear: Michael Irvin Pollard, Tamara Sevunts. Photo: John Quincy Lee.|
By 1982, the 90-year-old Victoria and Harry are living in California where she’s interviewed for an oral history project by a woman named Shoshana Epstein (Angela Pierce). The distrustful, misogynistic, Turk-hating Harry angrily opposes the interview while he himself is unable to stop expressing his own opinions.
|Tamara Sevunts, Nicole Ansari. Photo: John Quincy Lee.|
More exposition about the past is provided as we time shift to 2018 when the long dead Victoria shows up at the annual Turkish-Armenian Truth and Reconciliation Conference (as if), where the unforgiving Victoria rails against reconciliation. The scene holds out hope for an eventual rapprochement, but its awkward melodramatic and romantic elements detract from its optimistic message.
|Angela Pierce, Robert Najarian. Photo: John Quincy Lee.|
Daybreak (the English word for Arshalooys, the name of one of Victoria’s children) doesn’t seek to explain what happened in 1915. The genocide is a given and the Turks of that time are guilty. Period. The play concerns the effect of the Armenian diaspora as seen through a specific person. It reminds us of the incredible cruelty of which human beings are capable but also how difficult it is to forgive.
|Tamara Sevunts, Robert Najarian, Angela Pierce, Michael Irvin Pollard, Melis Aker, Nicole Ansari.|
Over 100 years have passed since 1915 but day has not yet broken on Turkey’s reluctance to admit that what happened was genocide. Nor, it would seem, on the victims' descendants to stop pressing for that admission to be made.
Beckett Theatre/Theatre Row
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through May 13