Controversy is frequently in the eye of the beholder. Richard Kalinoski has met his fair share of it with his play Beast on the Moon, which has received a number of high-profile international productions that are at least as well known for the hysterical outcries they've generated than for anything Kalinoski himself wrote. Now that the play has opened at the Century Center, we can finally see what all the fuss is really about.
From a strictly American perspective, Beast on the Moon isn't Shakespeare. But it certainly is much ado about nothing.
It's one of those earnest and even tear-jerking yet anonymous family dramas of the sort that are usually simply and cheaply produced Off-Broadway or Off-Off-Broadway, run for two or three weekends, and then vanish forever. This particular one focuses on an Armenian man named Aram (Omar Metwally) and his 15-year-old picture bride Seta (Lena Georgas), who marry and try to carve a life for themselves and their prospective family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin between 1921 and 1933.
Those years are crucial for understanding the uproar that this terminally gentle play has caused all over the world: They almost immediately follow the Armenian genocide, in which Christian Armenians were deported and killed en masse by Turks from 1915 to 1917. The Turkish government of today, however, refuses to acknowledge that it happened, and has attempted to shut down or discredit many productions of this play in numerous countries (including the United States), often succeeding.
While Kalinoski factors the genocide into his story in a number of ways - Seta is initially frightened of sexual contact with Aram, and her ability to reproduce might have been diminished if not destroyed by what happened to her; Aram is having his own difficulties putting the terrors he witnessed behind him - it primarily serves as background material for a story about two people learning to trust each other, recover from grief, and define the boundaries of love and responsibility to family.
But that story, while not poorly told, is never anything unconventional or exciting. It pushes all the expected emotional buttons, and pushes them well; Kalinoski has made it almost impossible not to tear up at certain points, or burst into laughter at others. The writing is manipulative, if affectingly so, but the play is so predictable in its construction and dramatic arc that nothing ever comes as a surprise or makes a lasting emotional connection. If it weren't for the Turkish government, it's unlikely anyone would give the play a second glance in New York or anywhere else.
Even so, just about everyone involved in this production does fine work: Director Larry Moss provides stark, clear staging, and generally paces the action well and Neil Patel's dining room set is appropriate in its simplicity, as are Anita Yavich's costumes and David Lander's lights. Though Metwally and Georgas are saddled with roles that don't give them wide ranges of emotional colors to portray, they nonetheless turn in impressive enough performances; Louis Zorich is underused as a florid-speaking narrator, and Matthew Borish sometimes pushes too hard as an Italian runaway, but their work is otherwise solid. Only sound designer Peter Fitzgerald never fully satisfies: Most of his sound effects sound as though they were generated on a computer in the late 1980s.
Not that much else in the play is especially fresh, either. Still, as the ancient saying goes, there's no such thing as bad publicity, and Kalinoski will continue to find success with this play in the United States and elsewhere. But publicity, positive or negative, doesn't always equal a great play, or even a good one, and that's sadly the case with Beast on the Moon.
Beast on the Moon