Part traditional dance mixed with abstract movement, part exhibition of intricate lacework, part a sweeping melodrama spanning a cursed century for Armenians, part a cry for justice, part public relations and information project, Deported/A Dream Play is an attempt to “narrate” the Ottoman Genocide of the Armenians through the story of two women caught in the horrors of mass killing, dispersion, immigration to the US–and beyond. As it title incidates, the play also lurches into the future; the third act is set sometime after 2015, a time when the main character, the indomitable Victoria (played to near-perfection by Bobbie Steinbach) can finally dream and in her dream gather all the fragments of her life, her century, her losses.
For all these reasons and more, Deported is yet another well-intentioned attempt to put the issue of the Genocide center stage, or “on the table”, as my companion for last evening’s play described it. It is a strange mix, this mix of art and the campaign for justice, and one which raises huge questions of representation–the representation of the Genocide, in particular. That there has emerged an entire sub-genre of writing labeled “genocide play” or “genocide novel” speaks volumes about this uneasy coupling. There is something deeply offensive about the phrase, and its bandying around, its loose use by well-meaning individuals, as well as its placement on billboards and in press releases; they add insult to injury, with further erosion, reduction, and diminution of our words for describing the horrors. But that’s the label, and it has stuck to this play, as well as others dealing with similar subject matter.
And it makes for a good draw on a warm March evening, to a downtown theatre with limited parking, and away from the suburbs. That most of the audience was recognizably Armenian adds another dimension of complexity to an already burdened project. Burdened not by the production itself, but more by the battle between the production and the words that the playwright has put together, the characters she has tried to create, the story she has attempted to tell. In fact, much of Deported is self-consciously production–from the dances, to the abstract movements, to the exhibition of lace, and the recurring image of the women working with the lace, to the songs and music. All of it chosen with care and taste to be sure, all of it turning the stage into a classy, sorrowful MTV-like space, where these “special effects” coexist with the human voice in its dramatic projections–the the weeping, the screaming, the angry raising of the voice, the occasional tenderness of a whisper. The text, the actual words, struggles under the weight of the production, struggles under the weight of theatricality. In this battle, only Victoria and her husband Harry (played again to near-perfection by Ken Baltin) are able to rise above the gallery of characters who inhabit this play not so much as real, flesh and bone people but more as two-dimensional expediencies, their lines often artificial sounding, their inner emotions quickly slipping into melodrama or a mini-lesson on the horrors of the Genocide.
The argument can be made that as a “dream play” this is natural. It’s the same argument that has been made about Atom Egoyan’s Ararat (a “genocide film”) : that it is a meditation, and a meditation does not have to follow the rules of straight, classical narrative. Both arguments are erroneous. In the case of Deported, Van Dycke’s choice of the dream is both subject matter and dramatist’s vehicle–to create the span of one hundred years and condense it in a 90-minute play, to take novelistic material and turn it into the immediacy of dramatic performance; to make space for the nightmares that lurk below the surface of Victoria’s consciousness; to push the narrative thread foreward through the intervention or slipping into the dreams of the past. That’s fine and good; the problem is how to bring about the combination of a text steeped in realism with the other-wordly quality of the dream. This is where the artsiness of the play as production comes in–the dances, the songs, the lace, all of which surround the actors’ lines, but at the same time take away from their presence on the stage. Often, too often, the stage becomes the site of spectacle, and when there’s spectacle, there’s a kind of alienation from the grime and grit of the characters’ struggle. We are watching a spectacle, after all.
But there are other sources for the alienation, some more complex and outside the limits of this writing. Especially in the second and third acts, the playwright seems to be paying her dues: to the oral history project at UCLA, to the shared pains of the victims of the Nazi holocaust against the Jews and the Ottoman genocide of the Armenians;present day persecution of the Kurds and all the good work done on behalf of the persecuted (though not all persecuted groups are included); to all the local Armenian organizations which work for genocide recognition and cultural preservation. This is the realm of public relations and activism, noble endeavours indeed, but it makes the dialogue forced, synthetic, and many of the characters (with the exception of Victoria and Harry) often two-dimensional.
And what of us, the mostly Armenian audience in attendance? What kind of catharsis does all this perform for us, descendents of Victoria and Harry? Yes, it places the Genocide on the table, center stage, but it is mainly our table. We know the stories, we know the horrors. Part of the alienation comes from the endless re-telling, the evocation of the images which have embedded themselves deep in our consciousness. Every re-telling, every re-presentation is an affirmation, true, but I wager to think (as I did after the performance on Friday night) that every re-telling–its necessity, its compulsion–can also distance us from the horrors, makes us strangers to it, spectators.
It is not so much how to “make the Genocide fresh and relevant” (adding another offense to the terms genocide film, genocide play, and genocide novel) but rather how to dissociate it from all the external forces which impinge on it, which push and pull it this way and that, which reduce it to identity politics or recognition activism or whatever the agenda may be. How to bury our dead so we can mourn in silence and dignity, so that we can create again a culture which was also destroyed in 1915, and in whose ashes we still seem to be walking, our eyes half open, as though in a dream, and in whose image we have crafted our collective identity as though being Armenian begins in 1915.