Monday, February 23, 2009

A Girl’s War

A play by Joyce Van Dyke
Directed by Torange Yeghiazarian

Any play with Iranian-born Bella (Ramezan-nia) Warda in the cast necessarily draws special attention to the acting. A well behaved play does not depend on brilliant acting to convey its ideas, and playwright Joyce Van Dyke has created such a work in A Girl’s War. Nevertheless, powerful actors like Warda dig their spurs deep into the work, making it bolt like a trained animal shocked back into its wild nature. It is noticeable how much the other actors enjoy sharing their scenes with Warda as Arashaluis, the fiercely patriotic Armenian mother. To survive the intensity that this actress brings to the stage, the other actors courageously counter with their own show of force.

Actess Ana Bayat who plays the lead role as the beautiful fashion model Anna, is on the frontlines in Warda’s assault. At two different levels, as it turns out: acting style as well as character conflict. Anna is Arshaluis’ politically indifferent daughter pressured by her mother to take up arms against their enemy, the Azerbaijani Turks. Here’s a scene where Warda and Bayat lock horns. Arsahaluis is ladling yogurt into Anna’s mouth, and with each spoonful the mother feeds a bit of Armenian history into her daughter, barely letting Bayat finish her line before Warda’s next spoonful arrives. “Keep up, step to it, more passion,” Warda seems to demand. “Let me be; I want composure, I want control,” Bayat seems to say. Which is exactly the dynamic between the characters in the play. Anna has turned her back on her country’s fight for land and identity. Moving to the United States, she has embraced a naive political individualism. Arshaluis on the other hand is driven by nationalistic passion, to the point of sacrificing logic. To paraphrase the lines, Arshaluis says “This is not yogurt; it is madzoon. Yogurt is Turkish, madzoon is Armenian.” “But it’s made exactly the same way,” Anna protests in between spoonfuls.” “No,” Arshaluis insists. “madzoon!”

Another character whose acting goes into high gear in Warda’s presense is the Afghan born Zarif Kabier Sadiqi as the Azerbaijani deserter Ilyas Alizadeh. To be fair, Arshaluis holding an automatic weapon at him does give Sadiqi an excuse to act larger. But his best scene with Warda is not the gun battle scene; it is scene when Arshaluis remembers him as a child in the village before ethnic wars destroyed the community. She embraces him with nostalgic warmth, bringing out jam and cookies for the reunion. Of course she suspects him. Has he really deserted, or is he a spy? Ilyas in turn is ambivalent, but for the moment both emote as though they lived in the world they asked for, and not in the world they got.

It wouldn’t have worked to write the ferocious Arshaluis into the scene where Anna and Ilyas get naked and have sex, but the scene could have used some of Arshaluis’ explicit passion. When Ilyas shows Anna his penis, I couldn’t read in her face whether she was witness to an erection or something less. Ilyas seems to appraise himself highly, but Anna is clinical, her embarrassment perhaps too well covered up. In the actor's dilemma of catering to audience laziness or remaining true to character, Byat chooses character. Or maybe she didn’t wish to compete with the symbolic content of the scene. Anna does not just sleep with the enemy; she baptizes the Muslim under a Christian cross before she lies with him.

For the playwright Van Dyke and Iranian-born director Yeghiazarian balancing Anna and Arshaluis must have taken some thought. Since the daughter Anna has no convictions, the story is really about the mother Arshaluis. On the other hand, the American audience identifies with Anna, not Arshaluis. So Anna gets the most stage time, and Arshaluis gets the best lines and the stronger actor. Anna/Bayat can advocate peace and a reserved acting style, while Arshaluis/Warda can worry about apathy taking soldiers out of the fight, and whether a generation that refuses passion may also refuse action.
There is another strongly bonded pair of characters in the play: Simon Vance as Stephen, a professionally manipulative photographer and Adrian Cervantes Mejia as Tito, Stephen's loyal sidekick. Vance is a nuanced actor, creating a Stephen whose job demands a cruelty and objectivity that goes against his compassionate inner nature. Mejia matches Vance's strengths with his ability to project Tito's generosity of soul. I don't know if it comes from Tito's affable smile, the happy gait, or the innocenct wide eyes even when he's wearing a bloody bandage on his head.
See the play yourself to tease apart how Stephen and Anna create tension on the stage. Her scenes with Tito do just the opposite; they give the play its light moments . Tito and Ilyas also come together, albeit briefly and violently. But that's all in the play.

This link includes where, when, and more info on the play

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