Papasian Directs Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’ for 2021 Graduating Class of Yerevan State Theater and Film Institute

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By Ashot Grigoryan

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

YEREVAN – The play “Twelfth Night or What You Will” is one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces. On May 17, the Yerevan State Theater and Film Institute graduating students presented the second performance of the work (the first was on May 5), directed by Gerald Papasian. Originally an Armenian from Egypt, Papasian has spent a lifetime giving performances as an actor and a director on numerous stages across continents. Yet this student project was of a special value for him as Papasian himself was a 1976 graduate of the same Institute. After having roamed about the globe for 45 years, this was the first time he was invited to teach at the Institute. For a diasporan who had studied theater in Soviet Armenia, a remarkable, emotional and unique full circle indeed!

Director Gerald Papasian at front center with the cast

The choice of play made by Papasian was perfect for displaying the acting skills of as many students as possible and offering them the opportunity to express themselves in a variety of situations. However, Papasian was faced by a major, albeit common, problem, namely, the limitation imposed by a dire budget allotted to costumes and props. The solution offered by Papasian was ingenious. He had the side curtains to the stage removed, creating a completely open space all the way to the wings. This merged the minimalistic use of props into a general harmony of emptiness, innovative and curiously pleasant for the viewer. But most important of all it made the audience focus on the actors, giving them the occasion to reveal their talent and craft after 4 years of training.

“Twelfth Night” is believed to be written in 1601–1602, on the occasion of the twelfth day after Christmas, as an  entertainment for the close of the Christmas season, celebrated with masquerades and cheerful festivities. As a comedy of errors, the play includes parallel romantic stories and has several key characters. Papasian’s fast-paced directing brought to the forefront the dynamics of hilariously contrasting situations. Through his skillful staging, Papasian succeeded in conveying the joyful and festive mood intended by Shakespeare for the purpose of Christmas celebrations. As for the actors and actresses to be, they all gave brilliant performances and graduated with excellence.

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Vahe Vardanyan (Orsino) offered a Roman statuesque presence (much needed on the Armenian stage), with a combination of youthful candour and self-centeredness. Sargis Shoghunts’ portrayal of Sir Toby Belch was impressive and striking in his flamboyance.

Milena Ghazaryan in her portrayal of Countess Olivia succeeded in combining the role’s nobility and imperturbable bearing with the youthful playfulness of a sensual teen age girl with an unruly, crazy heart. Her charming, artistic features and her abilities to convey quite a wide range of emotions would surely shine on the Armenian stage both in comedic and dramatic roles. Hasmik Gevorgyan was able to masterfully play the role of Viola who sometimes appears as a beautiful girl, and sometimes transforms into a witty young boy, Caesario.

Avet Zohrabyan successfully expressed both the philosophical and comedic aspects of Festen’s role, who, as the Fool, is one of the key characters in the play. Tigran Barseghyan (Malvolio) offered moments of hilarious laughter to the audience, especially in his yellow-stockings scenes.

Lively performances were also offered by Harut Beg-Vanyan (Sir Andrew) and Evelina Stepanyan (Maria – also beautifully portrayed by Verjine Vardanyan on opening night), while Areg Tonoyan (Sebastian) managed the challenge of playing against type. Vova Msryan (the only invited actor to help complete the cast) successfully portrayed Antonio, a sea captain and a priest.

The music and traditional Shakespearian songs helped to create the atmosphere of the Elizabethan period and a medieval Mediterranean county, Illyria, where the plot is set.

Elements of ‘Brechtian’ theater were applied, such as direct address to the audience and the open space showing the mechanics of a production instead of hiding them behind illusionist aesthetics.

The directorial inventions, the clear stage diction and the expressive intonations brought to life Shakespeare’s style, rhythm, festive mood, aphorisms, and his use of clever puns. Even an uninformed audience would immediately recognize that this is the work of Hamlet’s author (by the way, these two plays were written in the same period).

An observant audience could also have noticed interesting local references, such as the Fool dressed in the style of the famous Armenian clown Leonid Yengibaryan, and the character of the priest “Armenianized.”

It is worth mentioning that the play has a rich history on the Armenian stage. Its most famous production dates back to the Second World War when in 1944, Vardan Ajemyan directed the play at the Leninakan Theater. It was presented at the Soviet Union Shakespeare Festival and had received high acclaim by contemporary theatrical experts and critics, becoming one of the great achievements of the Armenian theater. Later performances of the play on the Armenian stage include the Hagop Baronian Musical Comedy Theater’s production (directed by Yervand Ghazanchyan, 2008) and the Hrachya Ghaplanyan Drama Theater production (directed by Grigor Khachatryan, 2014).

Papasian  himelf has played many Shakespearean roles in his career, working along some of the world’s best directors. We are certain that audiences in Armenia remember well his brilliant interpretation of Bottom/Lysander in Irina Brook’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in 2009. The play was presented within the framework of the International Shakespeare Festival in Yerevan, for which Papasian was awarded the Vahan Tekeyan Prize as best actor. The performance of the graduating class under Papasian’s direction vouched for his generosity in sharing his lifetime of experience with these budding actors and actresses. Not only did he teach and coach them for months, but when he heard the news of his mother’s passing on in the US just two days before the opening night, he refused to leave for the funeral, despite his students’ insistence to do so. Papasian’s mother’s funeral took place in the US on the 5th of May, right as the opening night curtain was going up in Yerevan.

It is regretful that the play was performed only twice and remains inaccessible to the general public both in Yerevan and in the regions. In these difficult times we all need such productions.

We wish the future actors success in their professional lives and we thank Gerald Papasian for his dedication to the young generation of Armenia.

And above all, thanks to THE BARD whose mastery came to our rescue yet once again.

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