Writer: Richard Kalinoski
Director: Jelena Budimir
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Richard Kalinoski’s Beast on the Moon, which premiered in 1996, covers events beginning almost a century ago, but its relevance to the plight of refugees in the modern world is striking. The main characters, Aram and Seta are Christian Armenians, newly arrived in Milwaukee in 1921, having fled from persecution by the Turks in their homeland. “Where are all the Americans?” asks Aram as he meets only Poles, Italians and other immigrants, reminding us not only of the scale of human displacement, but of how much more welcoming America has been to immigrants throughout its history than perhaps it is in the Trump era.
Aram (a beautifully judged performance by George Jovanovic) is 23 and, like his late father, he is a photographer. His father’s overcoat hangs in the hallway of his home, but is never worn and he keeps a photograph of his family, with their heads cut out, on display in the living room. His grief simmers beneath the surface as he looks forward to his new life, preserving his cultural heritage and raising a family of his own to replace the one that he has lost.
The play begins with the arrival from Armenia of 15-year-old Seta to enter into an arranged marriage with Aram. She clutches a rag doll, which we learn reminds her of her late mother, and she cowers under a table in fear of her new husband, but Zarima McDermott’s remarkable portrayal transforms her from a quivering child to the confident and independent-minded woman that she has become 12 years later.
The story is narrated by an elderly man (Hayward B Morse) who we learn had been a 12-year-old orphan boy named Vincent, encountering the couple in 1933. Morse also plays Vincent, which is the one false step in Jelena Budimir’s otherwise unerring revival. Aram and Seta have remained childless and the emotional impact of Vincent on both of them could, perhaps, have been made clearer if the boy had been more believable,
The play focusses narrowly on the past and ongoing traumas suffered by its main characters and Budimir, rightly, keeps her production simple and similarly focussed, Sarah Jane Booth’s set and period costumes suiting perfectly. As tension builds, Aram and Seta are forced slowly to accept their losses and come to terms with their grief in scenes which are given passion and force by Jovanovic and McDermott. The overall impact is deeply moving.
Beast on the Moon is returning to the Finborough theatre where it was performed first in 1996. Today we hear much of horrors in faraway lands and of the practical problems associated with the resettlement of surviving victims, but Kalinoski’s study of the psychology of refugees fleeing persecution adds an important dimension to urgent debates.
Runs until 23 February 2019 | Image: Scott Rylander