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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Beast on the Moon’ a powerful experience in Oshkosh

Critic At Large

University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre

After describing a disturbing incident, a boy (Dawson Fish) is comforted by the kindly Seta Tomasian (Ali Basham) in a rehearsal scene for the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre production of “Beast on the Moon.” (UW-Oshkosh)

OSHKOSH, Wis. (WFRV)

Here is a description of aftermath for a survivor of genocide: “There was something crawling inside of him, looking for a way to get out.”

That is the crux of the crust of Aram Tomasian, an Armenian man new to Milwaukee whose family lay dead in his homeland. Aram’s future is just arriving – his bride by arranged marriage, age 15. Like Aram, Seta is an orphan.

Aram has brought rigid ways from his upbringing with him. Baggage from the slaughtering by the Turks is an add-on. More baggage lies in wait and weight for he and Seta.

These are kernels in the powerful play “Beast on the Moon” that is being presented by University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh Theatre through March 8 in Experimental Theatre of Fredric March Theatre on campus.

The production provides rare opportunities.

“Beast on the Moon” is proven, having been translated into 20 languages and performed in 25 countries. The play’s brilliance is recognized.

Its playwright, Richard Kalinoski, present. He is of the UW-Oshkosh Theatre faculty, with his office just down the hall from the performance space.

The playwright is directing. Things are done as best as he can make them in this given circumstance.

Hello! That is quite a trifecta.

A hallway display includes a poster of an international production. (Warren Gerds)

Richard Kalinoski’s strength in directing comes through in the performances as he influences the players to develop the many nuances of the characters. This is especially true of Maxwell Benitz and Ali Basham, who keenly and sensitively portray the tinderbox relationship of Aram and Seta.

So much is fragile between Aram and Seta, and that is always in sight in the portrayals.

This is a beautiful play made from seeds of ugliness.

“Beast on the Moon” provides a picture of an immigrant experience for many Americans. It looks at the arrival, in this case in the 1920s (Act I). And it looks at the development – what changed, what didn’t, what life in America has come to mean for this arranged-marriage couple, now in the 1930s (Act II).

Providing the overriding arc is The Gentleman, who has multiple facets. He is a man of age. He is looking back, telling the story of Aram and Seta. At the same time, he is telling his story. He provides a perspective on his life with Aram and Seta – not judgmental, not emotion-ridden, just descriptive. The Gentleman also is seen as someone in the life of Aram and Seta, a ragtag boy, Vincent.

As the Gentleman, Christopher Flieller is an expert, finely tuned. As Vincent, Dawson Fish resonates the lifeforce of youth.

All the performances are carefully knit, by the players and by Richard Kalinoski.

This and that:

+ In a perfect world, the audience would be an individual person seated on a couch in the living room of Aram and Seta in a bungalow in Milwaukee. The two would be observed close at hand, very personally. Out of necessity, that living room in this production is expansive, so as to seat an audience – which was sold out Friday night, by the way. So much about the play is realistic, and the space stretches that effect.

+ A scrim is used as a backdrop. Front lighted, it is a wall in the living room. Backlighted, the impression given is that of a sidewalk immediately outside with a silhouetted view of a skyline of Milwaukee of urban buildings and church spires.

+ A hand mirror is a prime element. It is a gift. It is an inkling of warmth and hope in Aram, who is so short on one and so full of the other. Images in the mirror come into play meaningfully at important points along the way.

+ Family is a major element – Aram’s family broken, Seta’s family broken, Vincent’s family broken. Aram and Seta trying to make a family.

+ Marriage is a major element. Husband’s perceived role, his perception of the wife’s role. Seta’s dynamic with a stranger, Aram, and his rules for living and how Seta fits into that, and how Seta obliges to a point. Their trying to make babies. Aram’s overwhelming desire to make babies… make a family. Life in this family is on pins and needles.

+ America is a major element. Through Aram’s work as a portrait photographer, bits and pieces are told about how America is a giant magnet for so many souls from so many places in his ethnic neighborhood.

+ A photograph is a major element. It is of Aram’s father, mother, brother and sister. Ever present, with mysterious factors, the photograph becomes the impetus for the climax.

+ In ways, Richard Kalinoski is a chronicler. His writing is that of a historian putting together nuts and bolts of events of specific times and places. And then he rises above with ingredients of artfulness. The mirror means so much. The placement of Wrigley Spearmint gum is a stroke of Americana and humor in a highly charged moment in the lives of Aram and Seta. A boy’s reflection on breathing elevates the playgoing into realms of imagination. This play is way beyond being a hardware store of nuts and bolts. That is why “Beast on the Moon” resonates with so many theater entities – and likely their audiences – around the world. I don’t know how much this is shared, but I felt an honor being the presence of the play performed so well and guided so well in the direction by its creator.

Talkback on stage Friday with, from left, dramaturg Laura Jean Baker, playwright/director Richard Kalinoski and actors Maxwell Bentiz, Dawson Fish, Ali Basham and Christopher Flieller. (Warren Gerds)

+ Each performance includes a follow-up talkback with dramaturg Laura Jean Baker, playwright/director Richard Kalinoski and players Christopher Flieller, Ali Basham, Maxwell Benitz and Dawson Fish. Two things learned from Richard Kalinoski at Friday’s talkback: One. The play’s many translations and performances in many countries signify the wide esteem held for America. Two. A favorite phrase of Richard Kalinoski that arose from the boy’s breathing sequence was “man-breath,” and that was considered for the title of the play at one time.

+ More on the background of the play is here: https://www.wearegreenbay.com/critic-at-large/warren-gerds-critic-at-large-extra-a-tale-of-a-uw-oshkosh-professors-play-that-keeps-on-giving/.

***

Creative: Playwright – Richard Kalinoski; director – Richard Kalinoski; assistant to the director – Ellie Thirsten; dramaturg – Laura Jean Baker; costume design – Kathleen Donnelly; lighting design – Mark Spitzer; scenic design – Patrick Immel; sound design – Nate Wolkoff; technical director – Mark Spitzer; production stage manager – Amanda Penkivech; props – Shelby Edwards

Cast:

Aram – Maxwell Benitz, UW-Oshkosh student

Seta – Ali Basham, UW-Oshkosh student

Vincent – Dawson Fish, Xavier High School, Appleton, student

The Gentleman – Christopher Flieller, Equity actor

Running time: Two hours, 10 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 29, March 5-7; 2 p.m. March 8

Info: uwosh.universitytickets.com/w/event.aspx?SeriesID=8

***

NEXT: “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike” by Christopher Durang, April 30-May 3.

THE VENUE: Experimental Theatre is a “black box” space located in Fredric March Theatre, 1020 Algoma Blvd., Oshkosh. The theater has its own lighting and sound control systems and its own lighting instruments. Student-directed studio productions are presented in the space each year. Sometimes, a main-stage season production is mounted in the theater to take advantage of the intimacy of the audience-actor relationship and its non-traditional staging techniques. For “Beast on the Moon,” the audience is seated on risers in individual padded seats in the three-quarters round. The setup is for approximately 125 persons.

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

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