To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t planned on writing a Dear Armen review. I had extensively interviewed co-creator Kamee Abrahamian and discussed who Armen Ohanian was and the motivation behind the play so I had planned on just publishing some pics of the show along with a paragraph or two about if I thought they had executed things well.
Well, a funny thing happened Sunday night. I discovered rather quickly that what I thought about this show could not be summed up in two paragraphs.
Armen’s remarkably mysterious story, although serving as the show’s main throughline, was only a part of the experience. The play cut back and forth between Armen’s highly embellished memoirs, voiced beautifully on a recording by Abrahamian, and co-creator Lee Williams Boudakian playing a very realistic researcher trying to find the real Armen.
But it wasn’t as much about what she found as why she was looking for it and why the co-authors of the play were looking for information on a progressive, feminist, possibly queer voice in Armenian history. The answer is in the grandmother: the one Boudakian impersonated in character as the researcher and Abrahamian played but also the proverbial Armenian grandmother, or the matriarch who survived the unthinkable and was still clinging to the old ways.
Now, I don’t have such a figure in my life, but several of the people I’ve met over the years do and they’ve told me stories. Because of that, the portrayal of the grandmother in this play resonated with me and I imagine that it would resonate even more for someone whose family was closer to that of the fictional researcher.
The grandmother was also part of the comic relief and audience participation. Yes, you read that right, the audience is surrounded by the action in the play and a part of it, too, from the moment they enter the space.
Dear Armen is audience immersive theatre. I wasn’t sure going in to what extent they would take that concept but am pleased to say that they didn’t hold back.
Can’t say I’m surprised. After all, Abrahamian has a burlesque background and Armen was a burlesque performer, too. There is a burlesque number in this show but it’s a little more Requium for a Dream than Lily St-Cyr. While burlesque certainly involves the audience, it’s not to the extent that this show did.
The creators of the piece are searching for answers and bring the audience into that process. This is a performance, but in addition to being a captivating one, it’s also a collaborative one.
Dear Armen is a work in progress and each new audience is invited to take part in moulding it into the next shape it will take. I, for one, am glad I had the opportunity to be a part of that process.
* photos by Melanie Kalinian & Chris Zacchia
* Dear Armen plays in Toronto June 7th and in San Fransisco October to November with other dates TBA, for more info, please visit DearArmen.com