Theater & Arts

‘Nine Armenians’ struggles to live up to script

I got to see Leslie Ayvazian’s “Nine Armenians” in a performance bought out by an Armenian church. I sat there in the Fresno Art Museum’s sold-out Bonner Auditorium surrounded by approving audience members who murmured appreciatively at every Armenian joke, mannerism and mention of delicious sounding dish that came their way. I even heard some whispered translations of Armenian words. In the midst of all this goodwill, I felt like I was at a big party.

In terms of the actual production, however, “Nine Armenians” struggles to reach the minimum level of competence that I normally would associate with a community theater production worthy of review.

What stands out in the production of this extended-generation comedy-drama — done in conjunction with the community-wide commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide — is the sturdy and insightful quality of Ayvazian’s writing. Set in 1992 New Jersey, the play draws a powerful parallel between the 1915 Armenian genocide and events unfolding in the struggling, newly independent Armenia.

Ayvazian deftly makes “Nine Armenians,” in part, about the sluggish way the world responded to both crises. When Ani (nicely played by Alexis Colett), the semi-rebellious granddaughter in the play, decides to take a risky trip to Armenia to volunteer, she represents what it takes to actually get up off your duff and do something.

Along with the broader political and cultural themes, Ayvazian constructs a warm and inviting framework upon which to celebrate the Armenian family. Your name doesn’t have to end in “ian” to appreciate the jovial food references (there are even recipes in the program) and sibling love (and bickering). There is a recurring gag about how long it takes for Armenians to leave Grandma and Grandpa’s house after dinner — “Just one more hug!” “Can’t you take some more leftovers?” — that connects with anyone who has spent time at large family gatherings.

Still, the production rarely lives up to the script’s potential.

The acting is uneven. Tessa Cavalletto gives an affecting and dynamic performance as Non, the grandmother. She has some nice moments with Colett’s Ani, the oldest granddaughter. Some other performances are quite weak. Some of the 16 short scenes nearly collapse in terms of narrative drive, either slipping into a shouted morass or simply petering out. Numerous mishaps with lighting cues marred the Friday evening performance I saw.

I appreciate the community spirit that went into the outing, but it feels underprepared and mostly in over its head. Fred Bologna has a record as an accomplished director, but this production struggles.