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Richard Kalinoski Past News & Updates (05/15 - 06/15)

Chicago On The Aisle's Interview with Sophia Menendian on "Beast On The Moon"

Jun 1, 2015

As the recent production of Beast on the Moon wrapped up at Chicago's Raven Theatre, the reviews have been highly positive. But one we rarely get to see is the insight from the performers, and how they viewed the production. Sophia Menendian, who played Seta, was recently interviewed by Chicago On The Aisle's Lawrence Johnson, and was a part of the following article:

"The most disarming, lovable character I’ve seen on a Chicago stage this season has to be 15-year-old Seta, refugee of the Armenian genocide and mail-order bride in Richard Kalinoski’s “Beast on the Moon,” played with big-eyed, open-hearted exuberance by Sophia Menendian, who’s all of 20. She says she captured Seta’s buoyancy by recalling her own unbridled spirit as an adolescent.

“Seta is wise beyond her years and happy just to be alive, but she also has a big streak of immaturity and an energy that reminds me of myself when I was like 12,” says Menendian, who’s about to enter her junior year of drama studies at the University of Illinois – Chicago. She’s also an ensemble member at Raven Theatre, where “Beast on the Moon” continues through June 6. “It’s a wonderful story, and the beautiful writing really helped me find Seta’s wisdom as well as her innocence.”

Kalinoski’s play unfolds in 1920s Milwaukee, in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire’s bloody purge of Armenian Christians. Thirtyish Adam Tomasian (Matt Browning), also a refugee of the genocide, has found an apartment where he and his soon-to-arrive (and as yet unseen) bride will start a new life together. But the course of this affair is the furthest thing from smooth. He’s from a conservative family where men ruled and women were to speak only when spoken to; her parents were urban intellectuals who encouraged women to read, think and be heard. And that’s merely where the problems begin.

Tomasian, who saw his entire family massacred, is determined to carry on his father’s line. And so he immediately hustles Seta into reproduction mode. But her adolescent suffering has left her barren, and try, and try again, as they do, no pregnancy is forthcoming. As Tomasian sulks and turns silent, Seta tries to draw him out, but to no avail. Act II fast-forwards 12 years. The burbling girl has become a woman; the marriage has endured – and now a child does enter the picture, not theirs but more like a foundling, a young streetwise orphan (Aaron Lamm), whom Seta takes under her wing. Unbeknownst to Tomasian.

Menendian faced a double challenge: to be convincing as a young girl and then to reappear as a settled, mature women, the well-established mistress of her household.

“I began with physicality,” she says. “I wanted to connect with how a 15-year-old would walk, how open her eyes are, her mannerisms. In the second act, Seta is more composed, she walks with more grace, her voice is more mature, she’s more tactical in dealing with Tomasian.”

Making the early confrontations between Seta and Tomasian as credibly painful as they are often funny, she says, tapped into the good rapport between the two actors – and drew heavily on Menendian’s confidence in the director, Michael Menendian, her father, Raven’s co-founder and producing artistic director.

“Matt and I agreed this would be very difficult if we didn’t get along so well,” she says. “Matt is a good actor and we have a good friendship. We didn’t know each other before the first day of rehearsal. But now we hang out together and talk about the play. To be able to flesh out such an intricate and complicated piece of work has been amazing.”

The crisis between Seta and Tomasian reaches a breaking point toward the end of the first act. She has not conceived and he is angry. But it’s more than that. He’s desperate to preserve his father line, much as he has preserved the only other thing of his father’s – a large overcoat that hid the boy when the Turks came to his home and killed the rest of his family.

“Adam doesn’t talk about it,” says Menendian, whose heritage is Armenian. “It’s common for Armenians who survived not to talk about it. But Seta does talk about it. She understands that if she keeps it inside her, it will fester and eat her alive. She can’t stop talking. Her name in Armenian means talkative.”

The awfulness that has taken root in Tomasian’s heart is literally framed in a photo of his family that he has kept. But the figures in the image have no heads. He has removed them all. In the place of his mother and father, he has pasted head shots of himself and Seta. Tomasian gives this large, macabre photograph a prominent place in their home, and Seta must live with it and look at it daily.

“We didn’t have the actual photo until the final dress rehearsal,” says Menendian. “We’d been working with a framed blank paper. But when that picture of headless people was put into the frame, everything changed for me. I could feel the weight of it. It completely changed the way I delivered my lines. I’d been much lighter and then, ‘Oh, my God, why are these heads gone?’

“It was an eerie thing. I can’t imagine staring at that day in and day out and knowing that because of you, they’re not being filled.”

As for the young actress taking close guidance from Dad, Sophia Menendian said she was not only open to Michael’s insight, she counted on it.

“Mike is my father. I knew I was covered. I trust him entirely,” she says. “I trust his eyes. I saw in them the nuance we couldn’t always feel. I would understand the general idea, then he would be able, moment to moment, to get me from 1 to 1 ½. He’s very good with details.

“And he was really good at helping us not play the end at the beginning. It’s easy, as an actor, to forget what you don’t know (yet). Mike’s pacing really helped to make everything stew and steep until the pot boils over.”

The actress also got some good counsel directly from the horse’s mouth: She had dinner with the playwright, who admitted he simply didn’t know the answer to some pretty big questions. “We know that Tomasian saw his family killed, and that Seta saw her older sister raped,” says Menendian. “But how much more, if anything, did she actually see when her family was killed?

“I asked Kalinoski that question among others. Sometimes he would just say, ‘I don’t really know.’ But he also made a good general point: He said not everything needed a concrete answer. What’s important is that these issues are in the background, even if the specifics are unknowable.”"

"Beast On The Moon" Review from Times Square Chronicles

May 26, 2015

While this next review was from weeks prior, Richard is happy to share additional recognition for the Raven Theatre's production run of Beast on the Moon. Here are some of the thoughts given from Stephen Best at the online publication, Time Square Chronicles:

"A review of Raven Theatre’s gripping new drama Beast on the Moon must begin with a little history lesson I embarrassingly knew little about. In 1915 an Armenian Genocide occurred, killing an estimated 1.5 million people and orphaning over 100,000 children. At the hands of the Turks, the Armenian people were unceremoniously and tragically slaughtered, decapitated and crucified. The surviving children of these atrocities were spread out in countries we know today as Syria and Lebanon, as well as sent to the United States, settling in communities in Boston, Detroit and Milwaukee. Playwright Richard Kalinoski’sBeast on the Moon successfully puts a face on two of these orphans and their first years in America.

Directed with straightforward style by Michael Menendian, we start our collective journey meeting a mysterious narrator. Simply referred to as “A Gentleman” (Ron Quade) the narrator introduces us to the modest Milwaukee, Wisconsin living room (Set Design by Kristin Abhalter) of photographer Aram Tomasian (Matt Browning) outwardly excited and nervous about meeting his new mail order bride, Seta Tomasian (Sophia Menendian). She is a youthful and exuberant burst of enthusiasm and joy. Seta begins, literally, kissing the very ground she walks in on, thrilled to be rescued from an inexplicable dark past and passionate about a new country, a new husband, and a new life. She quickly discovers her husband, Aram, takes a while to warm up to. He is played controlling, menacing and somewhat fanatical. Heart warming to her one moment and then heartbreaking the next.

Seta is 15, which by today’s standards makes her a child, but here she is thrust quickly into a very adult world. Her husband is unquestionably old-school, informing the youthful Seta his own father demanded his mother to “not speak for an entire year.”This oppressive husband firmly believes women to be an ornament to help prop up her man. He reprimands her for holding onto a doll, more familial heirloom than play toy. Aram isn’t entirely a one note villain. He watched, first hand, his family being beheaded and he carries a healthy does of survivor’s guilt into his life and new relationship. This is represented by a stark portrait of his family, displayed predominately in the living room. In the image, all of the faces have been cut out, just like the Turks did to his own family. Art grotesquely imitating life. Aram exclaims there is “hope in a picture” and he has cut the holes in this image for hope. While this makes perverse sense to him, Seta covers the image with fabric when he is not at home. I don’t blame her.

As the story unfolds, the couple is at odds by Seta’s inability to have biological children. The scenes where they argue about her barrenness are prickly, uncomfortable and terribly real. Aram is desperate to repopulate his family lineage and Seta urgently wants to please her husband. Family, as we discover, is not always simply biological. As she becomes more comfortable in her new home and new country, Seta befriends a rambunctious orphan child, Vincent (Aaron Lamm) longing for some stability of his own. He is a delightful street urchin who unknowingly helps Aram finally face his own personal demons, buried deep within, about his unspeakably painful past. Aram’s subsequent breakdown and breakthrough, proving the past can be overcome, finally unites him with his wife (and the audience). By forgiving himself and letting go of the sins of his past, he release the rage within. “What is a saint?” Vincent innocently asks. ”Someone with a special kindness” Seta retorts. Aram finally discovers and embraces his own level of special kindness.

Beast on the Moon is an engrossing, powerful and compelling drama. At times uneasy, this humanized history lesson, utilizes a laser like focus in story telling that is a triumphant testament to the resilience of the human spirit. A touching and powerful new drama about the catharsis of forgiveness and the joining of souls. Defeating the monsters within opens one up to redemption and reverence. Beast on the Moon puts a human face on the horrors of genocide while simultaneously redefining what it means to be a (makeshift) family. You leave the theater grateful for the journey."

You can read the review here.

"Beast On The Moon" Thoughts from Chicago Theatre Review

May 14, 2015

Richard's Beast on the Moon at Chicago's Raven Theatre continues to receive high praise and accolades from audience members and critics alike. The latest review comes from theChicago Theatre Review, which you can read below:

"Raven’s ‘Beast on the Moon’ Vital Historical Theater

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, and the resulting news coverage has cast a fresh perspective on the horrors perpetrated on the Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire. For several weeks, starting in late April, the Ottomans engaged in a systematic slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians, a grisly process that included forced marches, crucifixions, decapitations and sexual assault, among other acts of violence.

Such is the backdrop for “Beast on the Moon,” a searing portrait of two survivors of the genocide and their efforts to build a new life in America. Beautifully staged by the always capable Raven Theatre and fearlessly acted by Matt Browning and Sophia Menendian, Raven’s production is not one to be missed.

The key to “Beast” is its narrative simplicity, and the way that simplicity allows the emotions of its characters to take center stage. Seta, a 15-year-old Armenian whose family was murdered in the genocide, arrives at the beautiful Milwaukee apartment of Aram Tomasian, a fellow Armenian whose family was also murdered. The year is 1921, and Aram, via a booklet advertising Armenian orphans, has wedded Seta and paid for her transportation to Milwaukee, all with the intention of starting a family in America, one removed from the horrors of the past.

The relationship, though, is rife with tension, and there’s a tremendous skill to how playwright Richard Kalinoski and director Michael Menendian subtly weave the emotions and motivations of the characters through both acts of the play, ultimately building to a climax that is among the most moving moments of theater I’ve yet witnessed on a Chicago stage this year.

Also worth mentioning is the wonderful acting of Aaron Lamm, a seventh grader at Wilmette Junior High who has built upon his heartbreaking work in Profile Theatre’s “The Cryptogram” with another winning performance. Lamm’s ease and instincts on the stage are a joy to behold, and I eagerly anticipate seeing him develop further as an actor in future productions.

Highly Recommended

Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci"

"Beast" Receives Accolades from Irish American News

May 11, 2015

It's always refreshing to see perspectives from a multicultural perspective, and Richard was elated to see that the staff of Irish American News has lauded his latest production of Beast on the Moon at the Raven Theatre in Chicago. Their reviewer, Terrance Boyle, had this to say upon his visit:

"A terrible beauty is born.

In the Beast on the Moon playwright Richard Kalinoski turns our eyes to the neglected Armenian Genocide, and story of two survivors who attempt to make a life together in Milwaukee. With the stoicism of Chekov and the gentleness of Friel, Kalinoski elevates the suffering of a community by crafting a stupendous dramatic insight into the hearts and minds of two people bound together by tradition, while bearing the scars of immense personal tragedies. Director Michael Menendian superbly weaves intricacies of this tragic moment in history into a brilliant production. Sophia Menendian, as Seta, a 15 year old ‘picture bride’ is enthralling. She brings to the stage a sparking humour juxtaposed with extreme sensitivity. Her ability to capture the multi-faceted character of Seta is sheer genius. We are disarmed by her childlike sensibility, enraged by her renewed oppression in a ‘free country’, and outraged by the memory of a crucified mother, and annihilation of family. Matt Browning is perfectly cast for the part of the repressed, and tradition bound Aram Tomasian. Browning shows the edges of a man without a people, without a family, struggling to keep alive his culture. Accompanying them in this journey is the narrator, interpreter, Ron Quade whose interjections are perfectly orchestrated. Apart from incredible work of Sophia Menendian, there is the surprising talent of the 13 year old Aaron Lamm who plays the role of Vincent with moving credibility. The Raven Theatre has touched on a historical raw nerve and re-opened a time when people were massacred for simply being different, a fact later repeated in the Holocaust. This play, which has traveled around the world, will open your eyes and hearts to the cruelty of human nature, as well as the tremendous capacity of the survivor to bear the worst of atrocities."

More Reviews Rolling In For "Beast On The Moon" @ Raven Theatre

May 8, 2015

As attendance grows at Chicago's Raven Theatre for Beast on the Moon, more reviews are applauding all aspects of the production. From the direction to the acting, as well as Richard's playwriting abilities, all marks are leading towards positive support. The latest review, from Chicago On The Aisle, has this to say about the show:

"Beast on the Moon’ at Raven: After Armenian genocide, an improbable pair retool their lives

Outwardly, Richard Kalinoski’s play “Beast on the Moon” is about a young man and a teenage girl, refugees from the 1915 Armenian genocide who have lost their families and embark on a new life together as immigrants in Milwaukee. But as Raven Theatre’s exuberantly funny and sensitive production so urgently telegraphs, this tragi-comedy is ultimately about the beast within – a fearsome creature of the mind spawned by terror, isolation and guilt.

Michael Menendian, Raven’s co-founder and co-artistic director, and scion of Armenians, chose “Beast on the Moon” in observance of the centenary of the Ottoman Empire’s systematic extermination of Christian Armenians. The genocide began in April 1915 and continued through World War I, ending with some 1.5 million Armenians killed. Menendian also directs the play, not only with wit and imagination but also with a palpable spirit of affection.

Twenty-something Adam Tomasian, recently settled in Milwaukee, has just acquired a mail-order bride called Seta. She is 15 years old and bursting with life. To put it mildly, they’re in for a period of adjustment. For Tomasian, who grew up in a family governed by the old ways, it’s a man’s world in which women speak when they are spoken to. Men do the thinking, women bear the children.

Seta, from a liberal family that encouraged female intellect, finds her new man’s provincial views bizarre, even laughable. She was brought up to embrace life fully, to read and ponder, indeed to laugh. Still, she struggles with the idea of stepping out of girlhood into womanhood, and she clutches a battered doll – all that remains of her shattered past. Tomasian clings to just such a memento of his own: his murdered father’s overcoat, which hid him from the Turks. The coat will bring this fledgling household to a crisis.

As Tomasian and his child bride, Matt Browning and Sophia Menendian make a delightful pair, perfectly mismatched. He is orderly, precise, clear-sighted, determined first and foremost to continue his father’s line. She is big-eyed with wonder at the relative magnificence of her new home, still the rollicking schoolgirl at heart but respectful of her husband’s primacy and eager to please.

The first order of business, Tomasian announces, is to begin procreating. Now. This is sex as serious, purposeful work, with short breathers before plunging back to it. The couple’s dedicated enterprise plays out entirely off-stage. So serious, so driven is Tomasian that when Seta comes home from the doctor with a report that she has not conceived, he drags her off forthwith to try again. Even when Seta is diagnosed as unable to bear children, because of adolescent starvation, Tomasian only redoubles his efforts.

There’s a madness in it, and indeed Tomasian has literally created a frame for his obsession: In an old family portrait, he has lopped off the heads of his dead relatives and replaced the faces of his mother and father with images of himself and Seta. His plan is to re-create his expunged family. A professional photographer, Tomasian documents the arc of his life through pictures: Within that hallowed frame lies a yet-unfulfilled duty to his deceased father.

While the play appears to be Tomasian’s story, and Browning imbues the man with credible passion as well as genuine decency, it is Seta’s adjustment, maturation (over a 12-year period) and compassionate partnership that more compellingly draw us in. Sophia Menendian’s warm, nuanced, fiercely clear-eyed performance gives the production wings. It is prodigiously accomplished work by an actress, the director’s daughter, who is still a student at the University of Illinois – Chicago.

Quite remarkable as well is the very young Aaron Lamm, as the street urchin Vincent, whom Seta takes under her wing – initially unbeknownst to Tomasian. Some of the show’s best comedy springs from Tomasian’s shocked discovery of this kid in their home and Lamm’s off-hand street-smart cockiness.

The play also involves a fourth persona, called simply a Gentleman, a fellow of advanced years who moves things along as narrator, sits in as silent observer and occasionally hands out props. I shall not tell you more about him, except that Ron Quade meets those tasks with an appealing aura of wisdom.

Designer Kristin Abhalter’s homey set is nicely complemented by Lauren Roark’s costumes, both strikingly accentuated by lighting designer Diane D. Fairchild. Especially notable are Kelly Rickert’s set-up projections, a prelude of historic images of Armenians in the homeland – happy, ordinary, beautiful people suddenly twisted into the damned, crucified along roadways and herded into oblivion. Such is the common provenance of Tomasian and Seta, the awful history they transcend together."

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