Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 06/08/2015

Arminé, Sister: An Effusion of Embarrassment of Riches in a `Poor Theatre'

Armenian News Network / Groong
June 8, 2015

By Bedros Afeyan

    Jaroslaw Fret, is a master director. He has produced this
    masterpiece with the Polish Theatre Group Teatr Zar, called Arminé,
    Sister. He takes no prisoners. For him, the theatre is beyond
    sacred; beyond timeless; beyond affect and surfeit of deceit;
    beyond make believe. It is more real than real itself. It is
    revealed; it is transmitted; it is osmosed. Theatre, like history,
    is a rushed-in rash of the skin. It is pomegranate juiced on your
    back, seeds oozing, witnessing sin. It is sand drunk through your
    eyes and nostrils in buckets and in heaves. It is red linen strings
    tying you to an iron grin. A cream puffed internal organs display
    shaking boots to their knees as if never having given themselves to
    a dream. It is Lavash unleavened bread, dry, caked, cracking
    against your skin, between your naked body, a genocide victim-to-be
    on a death march in a desert, against the naked breasts of another,
    sitting, hunched over, dead in all but heartbeats that meet thus,
    cutting maps of agony through un-aging skin.

Jaroslaw Fret has created and directed this magnificent new work
called `Arminé, Sister' with Teatr Zar, which is an attempt to
bear witness or resurrect the sights and sounds of the Armenian
Genocide of 1915. This group has researched and studied for years to
construct or find revealed to them this wondrous work. Having
travelled to Historical Western Armenia, or Anatolia, and for years
and years studying the history and its blurred traces, they met and
broke bread and song with many a native, a renegade, an exile, a
diverse talent pool, in the whirlwind of music and ecstasy necessary
to create this masterpiece. The freedom and expanse of ideas and
densest of execution that are on display in this performance piece are
legion. It is composed of singers from the Middle East and Europe,
predominantly Armenian (but also Kurdish, Bahai-Iranian, Polish)
dancers and actors from all over Europe, but mostly Polish, the
musical instruments, the movable, mutable, transforming props,
lighting and `poor theatre' space a la Jerzy Grotowski, are all

What is squeezed into an hour and a half of theatre is epic and
endless. It is in fact timeless. More than in any other show I have
ever seen or contemplated to date, `Arminé, Sister,' succeeds in
completely stopping time when it wants to and accelerating it whenever
it is needed. Doing so at variable speeds in various parts of the
performance space, and never stopping to apologize for it is quite
remarkable. A rich texture of time and timelessness, layers upon
layers, multidimensional and fractal, is how the canvas of `Arminé,
Sister' is painted. It is therefore a wonder to behold.

There is no plot, like a boulder accelerating down a hill, of the
playwright's making. There is no inevitability here. It can all
stop at any moment and reverse course. It can all be held still. And
yet the menace and the lack of solace are endless and ever present.
They change shape, they change tactics but thy never led up. Columns
and phallic symbols of all sorts, metal, feather, airy, fine, all
threaten the victims. Hundreds of miles of aimless marching is
condensed in a few dancers, climbers, gymnasts, artists, rendering that
sand, sun, soot, hooks, whips, stains, blood, rape and rape alike, all
in their couplings and uncouplings, dehumanizing and ever so sacred,
musically transported, songs in different languages fighting like gang
members in a rumble - crumbling nation witnessing its burning twin.

Instead of inevitability and clever plot points and narrative devices,
there is nothing, nothingness, notions, elements (like skin, lavash,
pomegranate, sand and linen), and then the edifices of theatre. There
is a Greek Chorus, which is the men constructing and deconstructing the
sets to morph them into a sequence of tableaux that suggest and compel,
but men who never speak themselves. The men menace, threaten, torture,
and busily transform sets. They do this with a timelessness.  Sometimes
together, sometimes in small groups, sometimes alone. There is no
overall single time clock. Each subgrouping and each scene has its own
sequence of time constants. They happen. The sound echoes one way, the
actions remain disconnected, staggered, unrhymed and unreasoned, or so
it seems... These purposeful marches up and down scenes, picking up
residue, creating new challenges and obstacles, the time to do what
time eats away, all done as if each move could be their last. There is
no visible motive or method of continuing in a boulder-rollin-down-the-
hill way. The audience is led to believe that all this is happening on
stage, but something else happening, equally valid, equally varied
would not have changed the ambiance and emotional froth and frost much!
That somehow, all of the potency was in between what was being done and
sung and said and shown but always also hidden. That somehow, the truth
preexisted and was immutable. It was just a matter of invoking it,
dancing around it respectfully, for it to emerge again, every night,
within each performance. Like the negative space of a ghost of a story,
a tale of no cities, a frozen agony, music woven on its wounds and on
the heels of dead Armenian souls.

This is a very rare trick to be able to pull off! Many actors, mostly
women walk, dance, hop, hurt and are humiliated on stage. But they
keep going in their faith. They keep marching on and off stage. They
are relentless. But what drives it all is the music. No one speaks but
the music speaks for a whole nation! The Armenian liturgical songs,
Gomidas songs, in snippets, Kurdish singing and Turkish thrown in, all
in drones, dreamy intonations, and the ladies marching, the desert,
1915, Gomidas Vartabed losing his mind, his silence, his protests...
And yet, nothing resembling a plot happens anywhere. It is a set of
tableaux transforming to better and better ones and repeating in
between. The repeats kill all sense of time or enhance the memories of
timeless truths brilliantly.

Since quotidian theatre, just like poetry or music, suffers from the
curse of being rolled out linearly and painting does not, painting is
always envied. Jaroslaw Fret and his superb group manage to undo this
curse of linear time. They paint and repaint and un-paint and over-
paint as they wish, seamlessly, endlessly, brilliantly. There is time
for everything here. There are no characters. There is no dialogue.
There are vignettes and wild, brusque, violent impulses.
Self-preservation is not always achievable. And there will be the
persistence and ever presence of pain and song, and competing song
styles and languages hurled at one another. And they will crash, and
sting and strike terror, while sand is blown out of the columns of
history, bells are chimed, flowers are doomed, women and their
reproductory organs are all a people have to remain a people. So that
too has to be savagely attacked. There will be no forgetting,
however. There will be death marches that end where they must. There
will be a pause. The audience will leave but wish it had not. Someone
will cover the actress who bled to death before our very eyes in the
sand, covered in history's ire.

The story is told by the agency of singers and story enactors, now
singing the holy mass in classical Armenian, in extracts, and
sometimes, also with a secular number. The rich texture of sounds and
singing in various languages fills the air with a thick scaffolding of
distinguishable temporal signatures. The actors do not follow this.
They have their own metronomes. Their shuffling feet and their striking
hammers do the time keeping. None of these mesh or are meant to mesh.
All this is happening in dimensions of time richer than the paltry
three-dimensional world of space. Past, deep gashed, present,
unspeakable, Pole, Armenian, artist, singer, dancer black, white, gray
all over, and sad and joyous, come to sing in these infinite dimensions
of expanding time and find their chorus unchained. It is a Houdini act
of unshackling the barren simplicity of what's done is done. This is
archeology and anthropology and religious ceremony reawakening clarity
that real time could never do.

A brief conversation with the director after the show revealed that he
and I both "fight the chaos," as he put it. So fight on Mr. Fret. Fight
on. You are not alone. And you are envied.

Dr. Bedros Afeyan
San Francisco, CA

Dr. Bedros Afeyan is a theoretical physicist who works and lives in
the Bay area with his wife, Marine. He writes in Armenian and in
English and also paints and sculpts.
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