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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! A tale of a UW-Oshkosh professor’s play that keeps on giving

Critic At Large

Richard Kalinoski’s ‘Beast on the Moon’

Richard Kalinoski poses in his office at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. (Warren Gerds)

OSHKOSH, Wis. (WFRV)

Richard Kalinoski wrote a play.

That play has more stories to tell than most – aside from its interior story that all plays tell.

“Beast on the Moon” has been performed in more than two dozen countries.

It has been on a globe-trotting adventure for more than 25 years.

Among celebrity playgoers has been Lyudmila Putina, when she was still Mrs. Putin, wife of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin.

Richard Kalinoski has quite a tale about that evening at the historic Moscow Art Theatre. One of the theater founders was Konstantin Stanislavski, creator of the influential “Stanislavski method” of acting.

The tale arose in the midst of an interview in Kalinoski’s office in the Fredric March Theatre building at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. A new production “Beast on the Moon” that Kalinoski is directing is coming up on campus, and I’ve been long watching the adventures of the play as a kind of Old Faithful geyser for fascination.

It is time to explore.

During the interview, Kalinoski brushed on the topic of royalties.

He said his agent is “always interested in productions in prominent places in Europe because there’s a better chance that we actually get paid royalties. Sometimes, like in Russia…”

I am interrupting here to note that I am editing what Kalinoski said because his course in telling stories has many roundabouts. The situations are complex.

“Beast on the Moon” wound up playing at the Moscow Art Theatre for 13 or 14 years, being performed twice a month in the repertory.

Kalinoski said, “They did pay me the advance in the beginning and brought me over in 2004 to see more or less the opening. But since then, they haven’t paid a cent.”

I held up my hand to my ear as if holding a telephone and spoke: “Vladimir…!?” Kalinoski smiled and said, “Actually, with the opening of the show, the first lady of Armenia had somehow gotten wind of this play and its relative prominence in Europe, so she wanted to come see it. So she communicated with the first lady, which was Mrs. Putin (Lyudmila Aleksandrovna Putina), and they decided to attend the opening, where I attended as well. I didn’t meet Mrs. Putin. She got divorced from Vladimir since then (2014). He wasn’t even in the country at the time. But there was enormous security. What should have been an hour and 50-minute performance ended up to be about four hours.”

First, there was delay for security going in. Again at intermission. Plus, the audience was sequestered.

“Mrs. Putin was surrounded in her box as she was watching the show,” Kalinoski said.

Always surprises, I commented.

Indeed, “Beast on the Moon” torques the perception of what a play is and, maybe, what a playwright is.

Kalinoski kidded about the latter along the way.

“It took me a long time for me to figure out, concretely, (that) I was trying to find a way to be a playwright. (Chuckling). “That’s a lifelong struggle.”

Kalinoski’s plays include “The Boy Inside,” “A Crooked Man,” “My Soldiers,” “Between Men and Cattle,” “Front Room” and “Beast on the Moon.”

In quick sum: “Beast on the Moon” has been produced in the United States, Canada, England, France, Italy, Kosovo, Serbia, Greece, Argentina, Japan, Estonia, Armenia and many more countries.

There is a series of roundabouts for Armenia.

“Beast on the Moon” is about an Armenian man and woman living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They are survivors of a genocide by Turks in the early 1900s. That backdrop to the love story is what has propelled the play so widely and for so long.

First productions of “Beast on the Moon” in Armenia were performed in Russian. Roundabout: Apparently, Russia views itself as a kindly caretaker for Armenia, having established a place for country-less Armenians in the 1940s.

What is the source of the geyser called “Beast on the Moon”? Another roundabout:

Kalinoski said, “Basically, I had gathered an interest in the history the genocide brought by the Ottoman Turks upon Armenians because I had been married to an Armenian-American woman. She wasn’t particularly interested in the era I was. We divorced eventually. I got to know a little bit her grandparents.”

The grandparents “were essentially orphans” who “managed to make a life in Racine, Wisconsin” (where Kalinoski grew up).

Kalinoski started writing “Beast on the Moon” around 1991 when he was teaching at Nazareth College of Rochester (New York). Kalinoski had previously written “Lifetime,” which dealt to some degree with an Armenian family, while he was a graduate student at Carnegie-Mellon University.

“I put it on the shelf. I initially had fond hopes for it.”

A colleague at Nazareth College suggested he revisit that play.

“I started interviewing Armenians in Rochester, and I became unofficially affiliated with the Armenian church there and wrote a scene and started showing the scene in staged readings to various audiences on campus. I also showed it to some Armenian men at the ecumenical center, and it seemed to be intriguing to them.”

That gave him impetus.

Richard Kalinoski keeps a reproduction of an important review from the 1995 Humana Festival of New Plays on display in his office. (Warren Gerds)

Kalinoski is not sure how “Beast on the Moon” got into the right hands to be produced at the influential Humana Festival of New American Plays in 1995.

“There is some kismet involved. That’s my sense of it.”

Kismet, like this:

“So much that happened with the play happen because it just so happened that Irina Brook, the daughter of Peter Brook (international award-winning film and theater director) had come to the festival.”

She was a visitor, an audience member, and not on a scouting mission. But she saw “Beast on the Moon” and was impressed and spoke to Kalinoski after one of the performances “and said she would very much like to find a way to produce it in London.”

In theater, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.

“I went back to Rochester, New York, and carried on my life. A year later, she called and said she’d gotten a team together and she would like to get permission to do the play in Battersea Arts Centre. From there, that production happened. That went well. Battersea is not the most prominent venue in London, but it’s respected.”

Kalinoski went to London, saw that 1996 production and got to know Irina Brook a little bit.

“She said she was going to do a French version in Paris… The production, not the play, won five Molieres (like a Tony Award), including best production from the repertory.”

Side note: In 2017, France recognized Irina Brook as Officier de l’ordre des Arts et Lettres and awarded her the Legion d’honneur. The first play she directed and produced on her journey to such an honor: “Beast on the Moon.”

In Paris, “because it ran for six months at a conspicuous venue, a lot of European directors saw it… And so many years later – this happened fairly recently – theater companies from across Europe continue to make inquiries about it.”

At present, three theater entities in Paris have inquiries, and Kalinoski may have to choose one. One of the entities is talking about TV.

Roundabout: “There’s a number of conspicuous things that most people don’t know about happening to the play. The most recent one is it was published in Japanese in Japan on Dec. 7 of 2019. That’s supposed to connect with a full stage production some time in 2020.”

Kalinoski spoke of a possible adaptation for TV with airings on a cable channel.

Meantime, from London, approaches have been made for “a serious film” being made from the play, although Kalinoski is not confident about the project because of “too much control over it for too many years, and they wanted to pay too little.”

Also in summer 2019, National Theatre of Kosovo mounted an adaptation that addresses the war crimes, including sexual violence, that took place in Kosovo from 1998-99. All the actors and actresses in the play were survivors of the Kosovo war, and some of the costumes were from the war.

“I tend to live in a constant renewal of surprise,” Kalinoski said.

Kalinoski has directed four productions of “Beast on the Moon.” He is directing the production that starts Feb. 27 in the Experimental Theatre of Fredric, March Theatre on campus. The cast includes two UW-Oshkosh students as the couple, an Equity actor as the narrator and a ninth-grade student from Xavier High School in Appleton as the boy.

The students, Kalinoski said, “find it sort of entertaining that I’m the playwright but don’t treat me so much as a playwright; they just want direction from me. To them, it’s a play. It could be ‘The Tempest,’ and Shakespeare’s not going to be around. They put the director’s hat on my head before they put the playwright’s hat on my head. I’m functional.”

As to him being the playwright – the source – “They’re kind of interested. There was a moment the other day when I added two very short lines, and they were a little surprised. I could tell they were surprised. I told them I was surprised, too.”

Kalinoski normally views his words as chiseled in stone, but this time he felt a need to add lines.

Performances of “Beast on the Moon” are at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 27, 28, 29, March 5, 6 and 7 and 2 p.m. March 8. Info: uwosh.edu/theatre/beast-moon/.

In the interview, Kalinoski mentioned thoughts of retirement. Thus, the timing of the production. “I am here, and, now, and I can direct it, and we thought it would be a good time to give it some attention,” he said.

The basics: The time is the 1920s, and Aram Tomasian is an Armenian immigrant living in Milwaukee. He has chosen a mail-order bride. Into his life comes an Armenian teenager, Seta. Along the way, the audience learns the impact of the Ottoman Turks on Aram, Seta and their families because of genocide.

Why Milwaukee for the setting?

“I was trying to figure out where to base the play, and because of my contacts with Armenians, I understood that there are a few places in the U.S. Los Angeles, Glendale, Fresno and Watertown, Massachusetts, are concentrations of Armenian Americans and diaspora as well. Milwaukee was not one of them, and neither is Chicago. Because I grew up in Racine, I was sort of comfortable with the idea of Milwaukee.

“Racine does have an Armenian church. As far as I know, Milwaukee does not. So I thought I would like to have these people struggle in their effort to become would-be Americans – whether refugees, immigrants – but I would like them to be surrounded by other ethnicities, and I thought Milwaukee would be good for that.

“(The ethnic variety) penetrates the audience’s subconscious a little bit, and semi-conscious. Aram is particularly proud of his achievements in the context of America. He has this sort of bifurcated sense of himself. One is he has one solid foot in the homeland in Armenia – or what would be. It’s confusing because Armenia wasn’t a nation until, sort of with the perceived help of the Soviets, that they had their own geographical, official country in the ’40s… Many people have no clue about who or what or when Armenians even exist.”

Why “Beast on the Moon,” period?

“The title comes directly from historical research. There was always a little resentment building over the 19th century about the relative success of Armenians in Turkey in terms of their progress in their business and their achievements and their Christianity. That’s very important. In 1895 – this is before the would-be young Turks took over the country – there was an eclipse of the moon. And then one or two or three years later, the sultan declared a jihad against Armenians. In the 1895 situation when there was the eclipse, the Turks – relatively uninformed, oftentimes uneducated and relatively ignorant; at least some of them, to be fair – didn’t know what was going on with the moon. So they aimed their guns at the moon and tried to shoot the beast off the moon; shoot the beast. Years later, the sultan, worried about some upstart Armenians, declared a jihad. This time, the Turks came out into the night but didn’t shoot at the beast on the moon, they shot at the beast on the ground. They shot Armenians. That’s where it came from.”

It may be surprising that “Beast on the Moon” has been published in Turkey. But there is a series of roundabouts with that:

Publication of a play is one thing, production of a play is another, especially in a country with a century of denial about the genocide.

“I thought that was a big hallmark in my career, that it was published there,” Kalinoski said. “But it also didn’t get a huge distribution. I have a couple copies of the translation.”

Still, with the play produced in perhaps 25 countries and in 20 translations, it seems to connect. Kalinoski thought about that with the recent Japanese translation.

“It struck me that there’s something universal enough about the play that can reach a Japanese audience; or at least people think that it can. That would certainly be true if there was a production in Turkey as well.

“But the irony about the Armenians and Turks is because of their long history of being neighbors and Armenians being embedded before the genocide in Turkey. One set is Christian, and the other is Muslim, but they sort of have the same culture. I’m generalizing, but there’s just a lot of the same impulses and their sense of the place of a woman in society. Very similar. The play deals with that just slightly.

“The thing is, if you speak to Armenians who have within their own soul this gnawing unease about what happened to their ancestors – mostly ancestors now, of course – and the fact that the Turks continue to deny it really eats at them, especially older folks who maybe had a single Armenian parent survive and maybe a grandparent who survived and was able to tell stories to pass down generation to generation. But the similarity of the two cultures is there. It’s still there.”

A denseness at every turn – every roundabout – is met when looking at “Beast on the Moon.”

Here it has an international reputation, but to Kalinoski the play’s clout sometimes seems like a bunt. His thoughts come in a roundabout following a question of how he considers “Beast on the Moon.”

“It’s very much a friend. It’s a friend. It served me extremely well in terms of my education as a human being. (Here comes the roundabout): In terms of my progress as a playwright, it hasn’t done as much as I would have hoped.

“I think I’ve always been a little bit a mix of realism and optimism. After the play won all the Molieres and did so well in Argentina, I thought, ‘This is going to engender more interest in my other work.’ It hasn’t translated that way.

“An example is ‘The Boy Inside,’ a play of which I’m very fond. It’s been very hard to engender any interest in that.

“Now, that said, the biggest single problem I’ve had in the last 10 years has been finding the time to promote my own work. It’s not so much because of ‘Beast on the Moon,’ it’s because the teaching and the directing take up a lot of time, and there’s a lot of mental energy.”

Royalties haven’t exactly been rolling in, either.

Theater companies that put on “Beast on the Moon” may be small, and countries may be poor. Kalinoski said he hasn’t been paid a cent for any of the productions in Armenia – a nuclear part of the play for goodness sake!

“With countries positioned between eastern Europe and the Middle East, a sense of their commitment to or their responsibility for compensating authors is almost not there. They just see it as available.”

Still, rewards abound. Some productions are by top-flight professionals who capture the play’s nuances and sensitivities.

“I’m surprised and elated – and I would underscore the elation part of it – when the play is especially well-produced. I sort of think, ‘I don’t think I wrote that.’ I honestly think that somebody else did that. (Roundabout): And when it’s a very modest production and not very good, then I’m reminded that, well, the play’s better than what they did…

“The productions that have been most successful have always been about the couple. They include the production in Athens, which is maybe the second-best production in the world that I’ve seen, and the production in Estonia, which ran for five years. The Estonian production was beyond my imagination in terms of delicacy.”

That may trace to the history of the region.

“In Europe, there’s a different sensibility… In so many of these countries where the play has been produced, like Serbia, their populations historically have been stricken in the homeland by political forces and dictators and zealots and whatever. We’ve had our history in the U.S., but apart from the Civil War, we haven’t had an invader. And so there is passed from generation to generation to generation a historical memory of oppression. That actually has been a very rich experience for me and educational.”

What struck me about the play when I saw a 2002 production by Green Bay Community Theater is the man and woman in it were my neighbors as I grew up in Milwaukee. I walked past their bungalow but didn’t know about them as people. Suddenly, each bungalow in my old neighborhood had a story. And what a fascinating saga the couple’s bungalow had.

Present-day posters on campus bill “Beast on the Moon” as a love story.

“The ‘love story’ is serious,” Kalinoski said. “It’s a big deal. It is. (Roundabout): It’s just that it’s not romance.”

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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