That shocking piece of history is the centerpiece to Alexander Dinelaris' ambitious Red Dog Howls, which is being given its word premiere at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood. One wishes, however, that the play itself was equally up to the challenge of the real-life events that inspired it. Unfortunately, Dinelaris' writing is often ponderous and self-conscious, and instead of just letting the story unfold, he tries to gussy it up with moments of poetry and flowery imagery.
Luckily, Dinelaris and director Michael Peretzian have cast the great actress Kathleen Chalfant, who gives a stirring performance as Vartouhi Afratian -- who calls herself Rose -- and has silently carried inside of her the unforgiving truth of what she endured during the genocide. Each terrible memory has been like a heavy stone tied to a corpse to keep it buried at the bottom of the sea. But with the arrival on her doorstep of Michael (Matthew Rauch, in a somewhat starched performance), the grandson she had never met, the stones begin to slip and eventually the truth begins to surface.
While Rose is written as a physically and emotionally strong woman -- one who stares down Father Time to look 25 years younger than her age, can best her grandson at arm wrestling, and has carried half a century's worth of guilt and suffering -- the mesmerizing Chalfant makes her even stronger: She stands surefooted and ramrod straight, delivers Rose's observations with a bone-dry wit, and sports a no-nonsense demeanor. Rose has done what was necessary to endure the past, and she is prepared to face the future as well.
Although she has much to tell Michael of his culture and history, it is Michael who is the literal storyteller in this presentational play. He is an uncommonly well-off writer who, evidentially, can afford not to work for many, many months as he deals with a triptych of life-changing circumstances: his father's death, the impending birth of his first child with his Italian wife, Gabriella (played with a saucy attitude and good humor by Darcie Siciliano), and the discovery of a grandmother and a family history he never knew he had.
Peretzian also seems to have paid more attention to the Rose and Michael arc and less to the Michael and Gaby story. Not only do the husband and wife scenes feel rather anemic compared to grandmother and grandson, they also feel rushed, as if their sprightly pace left no room for relationship. The feeling is that Gaby and their unborn daughter exist only to mirror or highlight events of Michael's life and carry little-to-no validity independent of that.
The solemness of the story is underscored (literally) by on-stage musician Ara Dabandjian as well as Michael Gilliam's stark spotlights and moody atmospheric lighting. Tom Buderwitz offers his usual impeccable scenic design work with Rose's perfectly appointed apartment and a rollaway platform that effectively changes looks for Michael and Gaby's house, and the hospital.
Despite the monstrosity that was the Armenian genocide, Red Dog Howls is ultimately about history, how we are defined by it (or the lack of it), and how we survive it. It is, finally, about finding identity and humanity.