Arts & Events

Theater Review: Golden Thread Premieres Night Over Erzinga

By Ken Bullock
Wednesday September 21, 2011 - 03:24:00 PM


Golden Thread Productions is one of the important Bay Area theater companies that has a very specific mission--to explore the culture and identity, or identities, of Middle Easterners and Middle Eastern Americans. For the past decade and a half, since Torange Yeghiazarian founded the troupe, Golden Thread's brought plays from and about the Middle East in all its diversity to stages throughout the Bay Area, including its annual ReOrient festival of short plays, as well as storytelling shows to schoolchildren. 

Night Over Erzinga, the premiere of a new play at the South Side Theatre (Magic Theatre, Fort Mason) in San Francisco by Adriana Sevahn Nichols about refugees from the Armenian genocide coming to America and what they and their descendants face, by both remembering and forgetting the past, is the first event in a collaborative National New Plays Initiative between Golden Thread, Silk Road Theatre Project (Chicago) and the Lark Play Development Center (New York), Middle East America.  

An excellent cast--Natalie Ammanian, Neva Marie Hutchinson, Terry Lamb, Sarita Ocon, Lawrence Radecker, Juliet Tanner and Brian Trybom--with the unusually clarity of Hafiz Karmali's direction has brought life to a mixed perspective of immigrants trying to escape the past, to find themselves ... assisted by Penka Kouneva's unusual original music, by designers Mikiko Uesugi (scenery), Jim Cave (lighting), Michelle Mulholland (costumes) and Mitchell Greenhill (sound). 

This is in many ways an exemplary production, bringing out the best in an ambitious, sometimes problematic script. The first part deals with refugees trying to bury the past in an effort to create a future for themselves, a dream on the terms of the society they've fled to, and the emotional price, the cultural emptiness their self-repression begets. The second part follows--at first in a way almost like a satiric burlesque of the first part--the American-born daughter of the Armenian couple who met in Massachusetts in the first part, who's fled the last vestige of her family and cultural identity to perform as a dancer, marrying a Latino, another refugee coming from a more traditional, family-oriented culture. The action is never quite chronological, following instead the logic of dreams, memory, simple association from time to time. 

There's deft role-switching by all the actors, Trybom and Tanner in particular, to portray three generations and more of uprootedness and striving for a new life, a new identity. The story touches on hardship and the atrocities of the past mainly through stories that finally get told and the evidence of emotional and mental turmoil, from unexamined habits that determine a life and its attitudes to the delusions of mental collapse. 

The play ends with a dreamlike scene around a wishing tree--a good alternate title!--its branches tied with cloths signifying wishes. On opening night, Yeghiazarian unveiled a commissioned Tree Of Life, to honor ancestors and future generations, by Bay Area artist Thomas Sepe that will remain in the lobby through the run of the show, to which audiences may tie their wishes.  

The production is one of the most lucid I've seen recently on a Bay Area stage. Karmali--himself a muslim of the Aga Khan's sect--and his players of various backgrounds illuminate the refugees' experience, show their inner lives and point to both the difference of cultural origins and the improvisatory experiment of American assimilation, revealing good and bad in the roots and in the results ... A triumph of live theater in bringing out inner strengths and transforming occasional awkwardnesses in the play, creating unforgettable dramatic--and, yes, comic--images of immigrant heritage, of our common heritage. 

Through October 9, Thursdays (8:30), Fridays-Saturdays (8 p. m.) and Sundays (2), South Side Theatre at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, Marina & Buchanan Streets, San Francisco. $20--$36, Thursday nights pay-what-you-can (at the door only; in advance $20). (415) 345-7575;