Meet Sossi Hayrabedian–foul-mouthed, bigoted, homophobic, racist. She is scantily dressed, with tentacular hair and a bone straight finger with which she scolds all those in the audience who are not married– heterosexually, of course; all those who may stray from the narrow path of being good Armenians; all those who may fall victim to the Jewish conspiracy for world domination. (About this last one, she is unequivocal in her belief that it is, really, the Armenians who control the world!) She screams and badgers and purrs and girates and digresses into her menopause problems, in a very accented English alternating with the Armenian of the Arab Middle East, from where many of Pasadena’s Armenian immigrants hail. Sossi Hayrabedian is also running for mayor of Pasadena; her son who is a half-witted kid, is her campaign manager, and she is out to get your vote.
Sossi Hayrabedian, and her ilk who populate the Big Bad Armo Show (BBAS), is the creation of Lory Tatoulian, founder of BBAS, writer of the skits, actress, and costume designer. I have never met and don’t know Tatoulian, so there is no conflict of interest when I say that she is one heck of an observer of the foibles, habits, obsessions, and argots of the Armenian immigrant population living in and around Los Angeles. No one group is spared her laser-like shredding, neither the Barsgahays (Armenians from Iran), nor the Hayasdantsis (from Armenia) nor the Beirutsis (from Beirut). No class either, but most of all the new rich, the pretentious, the conspicuous consumers, the flashers, those who sport the cars, the gold chains on their hairy chests, those who go on cruises where Marty and Varty entertain them with a comedy number as insipid as it is chauvenistic.
The BBAS has been in existence for three years, doing one or two shows a year. The core group is half a dozen actors, and a small support cast of musicians, technicians and designers. (This was their second show that I have seen.) But the quality which is most evident in BBAS is their total irreverence, their insistence on not taking themselves seriously, and their willingness to have and give a good time, while tearing down many sacred cows– beginning with the church. One of their most hilarious numbers on , for instance, which was a reprise from an earlier show is a competition between two priests from the competing churches caught in a pourvar match. The pourvar is the Armenian word for the contraption, a small metal bowl in which the incense is placed, with a long chain that the priest moves back and forth during the church ceremony, emitting the beautiful fragrance of burnt incense. Well, that’s all fine and good, but at the hands of the talented, wicked Tatoulian and her actors, the competition is televised, complete with sportscasters who analyze every turn and swirl of the competing priests. ( The photo below of the skit is from an previous show).
Together with the irreverance, the BBAS is equipped with a cast most of whose members are bilingual, which gives the show a unique quality. The BBAS spans across a very broad spectrum of Armenian habits and dialects and follies, accentuating the diversity but also bringing it all down to some basic traits which cut across such diversity. The skit of the young woman trying to maneuver out of a parking lot is a case in point. Little by little, one by one, all the hairy-chested, intense looking, nicotine laced men hanging around the lot begin giving her directions to turn left, to turn right, to swirl, to cut. All this accumulates into a final tableau where the half dozen vulture-like figures are hovering over this poor girl!
Because of this bilingual resource, there’s quite a bit of linguistic playfulness, and downright bawdy stabs here and there. The “Boots” skit about the three things a woman needs to find a good catch is such an example, the word boots repeated so many times that even the most prudish spectator will “get it”: The conlusion is that she needs boots but also a rich doctor.
The BBAA is irreverent, at times offensive, always a little risqué. And that’s the way it should be. Tatoulian and her group are the chroniclers of a community whose outward affluence may tell only half the truth. What lurks below the glitz and glitter can be told only with irreverence. These unsavory truths is the domain of the BBAS, and this group of agile, daring amateurs (in the original sense of the word!) is as entertaining as it is bold. My only complaint for the evening was that the show desperately needed a bigger, better organized space, and more frequent appearances here in Pasadena but also throughout the crazy quilt that’s the Armenian diaspora.
The platitude is that theatre (and art) holds a mirror to our communal and private lives, show us who we are. That’s the talk. But in reality, theatre of consequence holds the mirror to ourselves but also questions, exposes the points of gravity, the knots of power and authority with laughter, for sure, but laughter of a sort which is not cynical, which is not condescending, which is not derisive. That’s the paradox of all good theatre, and the Big Bad Armo Show, for all its improvisational, messy, homegrown skits and characters understands that well, for we laugh without excluding ourselves from the spectacle, we laugh with the show rather than above it.