Acclaimed experimental play ‘Dear Armen’ arrives at Berkeley’s La Pena Cultural Center

Melissa Boyajian/Courtesy

Without a doubt, “Dear Armen” is a play speaking for the pariahs in its little-known, idiosyncratic traveling performance, which originally appeared in Yerevan, Armenia, and has since spread to the United States. Though the average philistine would presumably disregard the storyline as yet another wolf cry for cognizance of societal differentiation, the audience at Berkeley’s La Pena Cultural Center production Thursday offered performers a resounding “right on!”

The play’s pretense is simple, though its content is not. While living in their aunt Markoor’s (Kamee Abrhamian) shanty, the animated Armenian genderqueer student Garo (Lee Williams Boudakian) endeavors to unpack the enigmatic existence of Armen Ohanian, a denizen of the Ottoman Empire’s anti-Armenian pogroms in 1915. By furnishing a foundational connection between Ohanian’s undocumented, unabashed existence and the concurrent restructuring of Garo’s existence through their research, the play establishes a framework through which to destabilize tropes of the cultural taxonomies. Garo unravels the basis of their own reality in tandem to their exploration of Ohanian’s survival.

In its experimental elements, “Dear Armen” is a sort of para-performance: different in structure but similar in form and milieu to a typical play. This is an exhaustive aesthetic project, presumably intended to unravel the threads of a humanity so knotted in difference that it has become indifferent to the specific struggles of the marginalized. “Dear Armen” does not simply seek to unsettle cultural paradigms and divisions rooted in otherness, as it also imposes a stripping away of identity markers in the assimilation process. The performance operates on a thin platform between the general and specific: This is Garo’s personal story of otherness. This is a story of all otherness.

For example, after a traditional Armenian dance number, Markoor implores an audience member to assist her unsheathing of the traditional garb, patting the zipper at the nape of her neck as if to say, “Unzip my dress. You undress me. You.” By incorporating audience participation, the performance underscores its elemental dichotomy between the other and the audience.

As the performance is interwoven with Armenian and English languages and accents, the audience is tactfully distanced from the turmoils of those characters and purposefully made to feel unwelcome in the home-performance space both Garo and Markoor created — a troubling contrast to the pretense of familiarity in the theater space.

Surely the claims of the performance speak to material, psychic and social differentiations molded and cemented with every social disruption — tropes that come to full expression with a riveting bestial-erotic dance performance by Markoor. But are we to believe that the show’s singular erotic performance is the performative manifestation of the unsheathing of obscurity or that the moment of pre-ordained audience participation in which select members perform a rap and readings works to dissolve the constructed sociotaxonomic divisions of humanity? Perhaps the program works to stimulate many audience inquiries. But these moments also have an air of imposition on the natural tenor that sustains the performance’s obvious argument: Individuality differentiates just as it assimilates.

“It was important for us to stay true to the piece and true to our values and also to treat ourselves as diasporans who grew up abroad,” Abrahamian said. “ ‘Dear Armen’ was about staying true to the situation and to where we were coming from.”

“Dear Armen” grapples with the results of a certain memoricide. (“Because apparently, if something’s not documented, then it’s not fact,” Garo says about discrepancies regarding Ohanian’s intimate existence.) In this way, the play furnishes itself with a platform to explore the manner in which each person’s identity is at once dependent upon and entirely autonomous from those who shaped the precise conditions of one’s existence — ghosts of former iterations of contemporary worlds. By treading upon unstable sexualities, linguistic tropes and the slimy terrain of cultural clash, the play presents a mercurial formation of identity and is meant to provide neither answers nor solutions to inquiries about identity formation and retention. Rather, “Dear Armen” functions as fodder for constructive inquiries about cultural differentiation. Though sometimes discursive and often hyperperformative in its means to navigate that tenuous relationship between alienation and assimilation, “Dear Armen” successfully presents a nuanced and developed approach to the topic.

Contact Zoe Kleinfeld at [email protected].