“Back on the Couch with Nora Armani” (Xiaopeng Zhan photo)

A Critical Exclusive: ‘Back on the Couch with Nora Armani’

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NEW YORK — Updating a one-person show some 20 years after presenting the original is no easy task. Nora Armani, however, does a more than credible job of it with “Back On the Couch with Nora Armani.”

The new show begins with a fun social media update on what it’s like to be an “ethnic”  actor in 2021.

Presented at Theater Row on 42nd Street as part of the 2021 United Solo Theatre Festival on November 21 to a sold-out audience, the action takes place on a stage bare except for a couch, a coat rack and Armani herself.

François Kergoulay’s direction highlights Armani’s enthusiastic acting style — she clearly enjoys performing and her enthusiasm is contagious. One-woman plays take both courage and talent to pull off, as evidenced in the past in performances such as “The Vagina Monologues,” for example, or watching Mary Wilson’s masterful rendition of Diane Vreeland in “Full Gallop.”

As in the play’s original incarnation, Armani takes the audience on a whirlwind tour of her life, beginning with her childhood. Armani’s maternal grandmother survived the Armenian Genocide, while her paternal grandfather left Istanbul for Egypt on the eve of WW I, thus avoiding being conscripted into the Ottoman army.  Armani’s childhood in Nasser’s Egypt was idyllic yet difficult, as non-Arab minorities faced almost constant pressure to emigrate.

We then follow the actor as she emigrates to America then Europe and enjoys success as a writer and director.

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The most engaging moments to my mind indeed occur when Armani focuses on family history. She humorously recounts the tea ceremony that her mother was made to perform when trying to find a husband: if she was graceful and engaging, then this indicated that she favored the potential suitor. If however she spilled the scalding tea on him, this indicated her complete rejection of the poor fellow.

“Back on the Couch with Nora Armani” (Xiaopeng Zhan photo)

Throughout the play, the recurring thread is the search for home and identity — like many Armenian families, each generation in Armani’s family seems to have started anew in a foreign land with new mores and languages to master, where they had to rebuild their own communities and institutions as well.

Billed as a “self-penned one-woman show on identity, belonging, and multicultural reality,” Back on the Couch” introduces general audiences to a story that all told few have heard, in spite of the increasing exposure that the Armenian Genocide is now receiving in academic circles and the media. Yet the story she tells has morphed, it is not static: “Times have changed, I have changed,” says Armani. When asked what she wanted audiences to take away from her show, Armani clarifies: “I’m not here to teach people lessons, but rather to have a heart-to-heart conversation with my audience. In the process, they become my friends, sitting with me in my living room, on my couch for the duration of the play.”

Armani sees theater through an optimistic lens, as a way of becoming compassionate by learning about the other and empathizing with their individual situation or plight.

At times, Armani punctuates her monologue with another clever device, an aside with an old unidentified lover whom she addresses in the audience. The presentation is Brechtian in feel and structure, in that she goes in and out of character to address his presence: “My goal in doing so,” the actress says, “is to get people to think and reflect upon their own lives, to react and possibly act upon it.” This ties in closely with her transformative mission as an actor, i.e. the her desire to affect change in the world around her, one person at a time: “Theater is a powerful tool to get people to understand themselves and the society around them,” she continues. “If I succeed in making a difference in one person’s approach to their lives, then I can say that I have fulfilled my mission as a performer. Theater is immediate and direct. Therein lies its power.”

At last count, Armani has performed “On the Couch” on four continents in more than 25 cities worldwide, in both its English and French versions, to critical acclaim. Especially coming in the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic that has alienated so many, audiences old and new will be happy that she decided to reprise her show, for all to enjoy.

Topics: Theater
People: Nora Armani
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