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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
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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