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This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the July 3, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Review: `Between Two Mountains’

What a surprise! Driving down to Bristol Riverside

Theater to see Vartan Petrossian — "Armenia’s most beloved

and popular entertainer," according to the press release —

I had to admit my expectations were fairly low. I had never heard

of Petrossian, but I knew that Armenia was not a very big country,

about the size of Maryland, in fact. "How good could this guy

be," I thought. After all, I had no particular hankering to see

Maryland’s most beloved entertainer, whomever that may be (David Hasselhoff

of TV’s "Baywatch," perhaps, born in Baltimore).

But two hours later, my head was spinning. Stated flat out, Petrossian

is a first-class theatrical artist. He is a bold, original, deft,

and sensitive performer, multi-talented and hilarious, yet subtly

heart-wrenching. In fact, if you take Robin Williams at his best,

make him Armenian, shrink him down a bit, stick him in a tux and tails,

delete the copious obscenities, but add a dash of political controversy,

and you have Vartan Petrossian.

"Between Two Mountains," written by Petrossian for this BRT

production and performed entirely in English, is a mix of clever monologues,

touching moments, political sarcasm, and a hefty dose of dancing and

singing. It will be onstage at BRT through July 14.

How "Armenia’s most beloved and popular entertainer" came

to Bristol, Pennsylvania, is a story of its own (U.S. 1, August 15,

2001). Last summer, BRT’s artistic director Edward Keith Baker was

chosen to travel to Armenia as a cultural representative for the U.S.

State Department. In addition to participating in a show, created

by Petrossian, celebrating Armenia’s 1700th anniversary as a Christian

nation, Baker met with artistic directors at Armenian theaters to

discuss the feasibility of continuing the cultural exchange between

the two nations. Upon his return, Baker, and BRT founding producing

director, Susan Atkinson, launched the United States-Armenia Theatrical

Exchange Project, a group that intends to foster cultural links between

the two nations. US-ATEP’s first major initiative is this, Petrossian’s

one-person and five musician show, "Between Two Mountains."

The performance begins rather drearily with a slide show of highlights

of Armenian history presented in the dry style of high school social

studies classes. With a tinkling piano in the background, we learn

of the Turkish genocide of the Armenians, 1988’s devastating earthquake,

and the economic problems Armenia has struggled through after proclaiming

its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. But the mood brightens

soon enough as the screen ascends to the rafters and the five-piece

Armenian-led band kicks into a Dixieland sound. Petrossian enters,

clutching a microphone, swinging his hips, and dancing like a crab

on the beach as he croons "Bare Necessities" from Disney’s

"The Jungle Book." A delightfully irreverent beginning.

The show is a nicely paced conglomeration of song, dance and comic

soliloquies. Petrossian is a highly skilled mimic. He does credible

vocal impersonations of musical instruments like trombones, pianos,

and drums, jamming with the band several times by using just his mouth,

tongue, and voice, as instruments. He also does fine impressions of

the human variety, offering a growling Louis Armstrong, blotting the

sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief, and a exuberant Elvis

Presley, in all his hip-swirling glory.

The soliloquies come in two forms. Sometimes they are insights into

human behavior, spoken directly to the audience, much like a stand-up

comic. Here Petrossian gives us quirky insights, such as what life

is like overseas — vodka makes a Russian optimistic, German’s

love discipline so much that "even the clouds march in formation"

across the German sky, and the French love love. He also offers small

vignettes that provide insights into human behavior. We get a pothead

in hell who holds a joint without a way to light it or a cab driver

and a fare, totally unfamiliar with one another’s language, who nevertheless

communicate by means of grunts and tonal inflections.

Not surprisingly, a serious message lurks beneath all the fun. Armenia,

nestled between Turkey and Azerbaijan, is caught in the middle between

the Eastern and Western worlds, The theme of "Between Two Mountains,"

repeated in different ways throughout the show, is that these cultural

giants must learn to communicate, despite their inability to speak

one another’s languages.

This message is brought home at the end of the show with a troubling

edge. After donning a turban, sunglasses, and a gray beard, Petrossian

portrays an Arab ranting about oil and cultural disparity with the

West. The lights go out, just as he spreads his arms, winglike, and

tilts slightly to the side like a lumbering jumbo jet.

Petrossian then moves to the edge of the stage, sits under intimate

lighting, and discusses the similarities between the events of September

11 and the problems of Armenia’s devastation over the years. Drawing

a parallel with victims of the World Trade Center bombing and Armenian

children trapped beneath the rubble after the 1988 earthquake or the

terror of the victims burned to death by the Turks, he ends by saying

that, perhaps, if the West had learned to respond to such earlier

devastations, those two towers might still standing today.

— Jack Florek

Between Two Mountains , Bristol Riverside Theater,

120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, 215-785-0100. Vartan Petrossian stars

in his own English-language play. Performances continue Friday and

Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m., to July 14. $25.

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