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In Arts & Entertainment Commentary

"Beast on the Moon" by In Tandem Theater Co. deals with the effects of the "forgotten genocide" in the early 20th century. (PHOTO: Mark Frohna Photography)

"Beast on the Moon" is can't-miss theater

Each of us is shaped by our history, for good or ill, with joy or sorrow, with distortion or precision of memory.

And that shaping by history is at the heart of the powerful, exquisite and gripping production of "Beast on the Moon"' that opened Friday night at In Tandem Theatre's 10th Street playhouse.

The historical event driving this play by Richard Kalinoski is the slaughter of nearly one and a half million Armenians by the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, a slaughter that began in 1915. It is often referred to as the "forgotten genocide."

The story is of Aram, a refugee from Armenia who settled in Milwaukee and Zeta, who as a 15-year-old travels from an orphanage to become the wife of Aram. She is greeted in America by a rigid grown man who gives her an "American mirror" as a welcoming gift, which prompts her first steps at a penetrating self-examination.

The 12-year slice of their lives is like an intricate dance, taking turns who leads and who follows, learning new steps, trying different rhythms and dedicating each other to intensive practice.

Both Aram and Zeta have been shaped by the horrors of the genocide, having survived and witnessed unspeakable family slaughter. Both of them deal with it by closing off a part of their lives and trying to create a substitute for the family they have lost.

The arc of this story is far too precious to be spoiled by a review, but the journey that director Mary MacDonald Kerr takes us on is so emotional that at the end, I felt a shiver in my spine as the tears gathered on my cheek. Crying at the end of a play is a rare event in my life.

This is an almost perfect production. With so much emotion running wild, Kerr realized that it was important to give an audience time to breathe and to shake your head at the drama unfolding before us. She is one of the finest actors this city has ever seen and her acting sensibilities are clear in this turn as director.

There are moments in this play where the silence between Aram and Zeta stretches to almost unholy lengths. You want to stand up and shout: "Talk to each other, for Pete's sake." But it's not the talking that moves this play. It's the listening and the three actors on stage provide a clear lesson on how important it is to listen to the other person. Kerr has given them space to just "be," a task a lesser director may not have been able to perform, much less recognize.

Robert Spencer plays both an old man who is the narrator and a young Italian orphan who finds his way into the lives of Aram and Zeta. It is eloquent testimony to his skills that we believe both roles.

Michael Cotey plays Aram and Grace DeWolff plays Zeta and their chemistry onstage is almost miraculous.

Cotey, whose wife Eleanor designed stunningly evocative costumes, is proving with every turn on stages in this town that he is a true force to watch. He has a wide range of emotion. When he smoulders over Zeta's insolence and growth into a woman, you can almost see the smoke coming out of his ears. When he grows tired of her and lets his beast out, you find yourself sitting back in your chair, hoping to stay out of his way.

DeWolff was, in no uncertain terms, spectacular. She had the vulnerability and humor of a 15-year-old orphan and the worldly certainty of a childless woman in search of a present to make her husband whole. Her passion for honor and truth is boundless and she can make you laugh and shudder all in a moment's time.

It is impossible not to notice the similarities between Kerr and DeWolff, who is eerily reminiscent of a young Kerr, who has delighted audiences in Milwaukee for almost two decades.

In Tandem opened its 15th season this year with a tension-filled production of 'The Nightmare Room," one of the most powerful plays of the year. This play ranks right up with that one and should not be missed.


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