LOS ANGELES — If you’re Armenian you’ll love Komitas. If you’re not, the play may seem a little obscure. It’s the story of a 19th century musicologist who made it his life’s work to collect the music of his country—the folk songs, the liturgy, the classics—so that they would remain pure and free from the myriad influences of other cultures that had invaded and settled in the country throughout its history.
“Song is a crimson thread woven through our culture,” he says. “But the Armenian heart is not ours alone. It is Syrian and Indian and Persian.
In addition, Komitas was a composer and a priest, a teacher, and the founder and conductor of an acclaimed national choir.
In Lilly Thomassian’s play, now having its world premiere at the Circle X Theater in Atwater Village, Komitas’ life is presented in a loose, back and forth manner, interspersed with dreams and fantasies and doubts. Jesse Einstein, who plays Komitas with earnest devotion, is often joined onstage by Arthur Parian, who plays his younger, orphaned self.
Komitas was a rebel who was indulged by the church even as he went his own way. But he maintained his loyalty even after he fell in love with the beautiful singer, Margaret (Gina Manziello). Manziello’s glorious voice brings the plaintive Armenian music to life, and the Armenians in the audience, who understood the words, to tears.
The historical period that Komitas lived through comes to a head in 1915 during the brutal genocide fomented by the Turks, (“There is deep sorrow that characterizes our Armenian soul,” he says) and the events through which he suffered eventually drove him mad. He spent the final 20 years of his life in total silence in a mental institution in Paris.
Despite the occasional comments in Armenian, the play, which is a historical documentary as well as a touching love story, is easily understood, if a trifle too long and repetitious.
Director Pavel Cerny has done a skillful job of telling Komitas’ story while adding some distinctive touches: for example, half a dozen players evoke the long death march instigated by the Turks by stamping their feet rhythmically in place for long minutes. It’s an effectively chilling moment.
Further, the nine ensemble players continually morph into other characters, making lightning-fast costume changes as they represent dozens of different individuals.
The ensemble acting is generally good, and Jesse Einstein, who remains onstage for the full two-and-a-half hours, is especially commendable in the lead.
It’s an interesting and absorbing play, but as I indicated earlier, it helps if you’re Armenian.
Komitas, produced by the Armenian Cultural Movement, will continue at the Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Avenue, in Los Angeles, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 6 through August 19th. Call (818) 551-1234 for reservations.
Citron is Los Angeles bureau chief of San Diego Jewish World. She may be contacted at [email protected]