Richard Kalinoski is a playwright. He’ll tell you that upfront. And if you consult the Google gods, you’ll quickly connect him with his most famous work, Beast on the Moon, which is being revived this month at In Tandem Theatre.
Actors Michael Cotey (left) and Grace DeWolff play leads Adam and Seta, respectively.
Photo by Adam Ryan Morris
But today, a quiet weekday in January, Kalinoski is a director, one of a handful of people inside UW-Oshkosh’s Fredric March Theatre (it’s semester break) working on a scene from Edward Albee’s absurdist milestone, The American Dream. In it, the vain and vacuous Young Man shows up at the house of an echt American family and captures the lusty attentions of Grandma.
Albee’s disturbingly wacky world is a far cry from the couple at the heart of Beast on the Moon. Unlike those archetypes, Kalinoski’s main characters have names (Aram and Seta), live in a specific place (Milwaukee in the 1920s) and share a devastating history. Both survived the mass killings of Armenians committed by the Ottoman government during World War I. Recent immigrants, Aram and Seta are living a different sort of American dream.
For all its weighty history, Kalinoski is cautious about saying the play is “about” the Armenian genocide. “It’s about two people trying to forge a marriage,” he says while sitting in the den of his home, not far from campus. “They are also attempting to leave behind the genocide, which will, of course, be impossible. But the whole message of the play is that they make progress.”
You can almost read the play’s history from the walls of the sun-drenched den in Kalinoski’s home.
Surrounding him are testaments to his theatrical successes around the world, including a poster from Beast on the Moon’s breakthrough 1995 production at the premiere American venue for new plays: Louisville’s Humana Festival. There are posters for other plays, including Between Men and Cattle (produced by Milwaukee’s Next Act Theatre in 2004) and My Soldiers, a 2009 debut play that was later part of a regional American College Theater Festival. In a glass cabinet, there’s a basketball signed by the cast and crew of The Thousand Pound Marriage – about the trials of a basketball coach and wife.
This play was a fitting icon for a turning point in Kalinoski’s life. After growing up in Racine, he attended UW-Whitewater with a basketball Jones. He didn’t make the team, but instead settled into a conventional liberal arts education, occasionally writing poetry.
The theater bug bit when he spent a summer abroad studying at the University of Oxford. “I worked on a scene from King Lear with some Oxford dons,” he says. “And I came home wanting to write plays.” His early efforts were good enough to get him into the graduate program at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh. And he spent some of the years after grad school writing and supporting himself with several jobs, including one at the Seattle Children’s Theatre.
The idea for Beast on the Moon was inspired by Kalinoski’s extended family. His then-wife’s grandparents were Armenian immigrants, and from them, he heard stories about the genocide. He also learned of the practice of summoning Armenian orphans to America as “child brides,” which inspired him to craft a scene in which a man meets his bride for the first time. So he staged the scene for other Armenian immigrants in Rochester, N.Y., where he was teaching at the time. It connected.
“They were quite struck by it,” he says, “and it gave me a nudge to continue working on the play.”
Soon, the completed play was the toast of Humana Festival, and that was only the beginning of its journey. It was seen there by Irina Brook, daughter of theater legend Peter Brook, who directed it at London’s Battersea Arts Centre and eventually took it to Paris, where it ran for six months and won several Moliere Awards (the French equivalent of the Tony).
Fittingly, Beast also made it to Milwaukee in 1995, where it caught the attention of the late Montgomery Davis of the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, which gave the play its Midwest premiere. After that? The world: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Moscow, Buenos Aires, even Estonia. It’s been translated into 12 languages and continues to be staged internationally almost 20 years after its premiere.
Although Americans might think of it as “the Armenian Genocide” play, international audiences aren’t as likely to think of it as a historical drama. For people in Europe, Kalinoski says, “these are just folks. They happen to be Armenians, but they could be any number of ethnic populations.”
And at its heart, the playwright says, “It’s a love story.”