To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t planned on writing a Dear Armen review. I had extensively interviewed co-creator Kamee Abrahamian and discussed who Armen Ohanian was and the motivation behind the play so I had planned on just publishing some pics of the show along with a paragraph or two about if I thought they had executed things well.

Well, a funny thing happened Sunday night. I discovered rather quickly that what I thought about this show could not be summed up in two paragraphs.

Armen’s remarkably mysterious story, although serving as the show’s main throughline, was only a part of the experience. The play cut back and forth between Armen’s highly embellished memoirs, voiced beautifully on a recording by Abrahamian, and co-creator Lee Williams Boudakian playing a very realistic researcher trying to find the real Armen.

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But it wasn’t as much about what she found as why she was looking for it and why the co-authors of the play were looking for information on a progressive, feminist, possibly queer voice in Armenian history. The answer is in the grandmother: the one Boudakian impersonated in character as the researcher and Abrahamian played but also the proverbial Armenian grandmother, or the matriarch who survived the unthinkable and was still clinging to the old ways.

Now, I don’t have such a figure in my life, but several of the people I’ve met over the years do and they’ve told me stories. Because of that, the portrayal of the grandmother in this play resonated with me and I imagine that it would resonate even more for someone whose family was closer to that of the fictional researcher.

The grandmother was also part of the comic relief and audience participation. Yes, you read that right, the audience is surrounded by the action in the play and a part of it, too, from the moment they enter the space.

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Dear Armen is audience immersive theatre. I wasn’t sure going in to what extent they would take that concept but am pleased to say that they didn’t hold back.

Can’t say I’m surprised. After all, Abrahamian has a burlesque background and Armen was a burlesque performer, too. There is a burlesque number in this show but it’s a little more Requium for a Dream than Lily St-Cyr. While burlesque certainly involves the audience, it’s not to the extent that this show did.

The creators of the piece are searching for answers and bring the audience into that process. This is a performance, but in addition to being a captivating one, it’s also a collaborative one.

Dear Armen is a work in progress and each new audience is invited to take part in moulding it into the next shape it will take. I, for one, am glad I had the opportunity to be a part of that process.

* photos by Melanie Kalinian & Chris Zacchia

* Dear Armen plays in Toronto June 7th and in San Fransisco October to November with other dates TBA, for more info, please visit

Just who was Armen Ohanian? No one really knows, and that’s essentially the point of Dear Armen, a new play premiering in Montreal this weekend.

“She was very careful in the crafting of her self,” noted Kamee Abrahamian, the show’s co-creator, adding that Ohanian “left behind a mysterious trail which her biographers, and now we, are still trying to decode.”

What we do know about this turn of the century artist is quite an impressive biography. She survived the anti-Armenian pogroms in Baku and went on to have an international career as a dancer, writer and translator. Ohanian founded a theatre in Tehran, a dance school in Mexico City, wrote a collection of memoirs and had time for affairs with some of the biggest stars of the day.

“A friend of mine who runs the women’s resource center in Armenia told me about her a couple of years ago because she knew I was a burlesque performer and she thought I would be interested in the story,” Abrahamian recounts, “she was right, her story was completely inspiring.”

The first person Abrahamian called was Lee Williams Boudakian, who became her co-writer, co-performer and collaborator. Both are Canadian-based artists with Armenian backgrounds and they had found their muse.

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“Both of us were also really excited about the fact that we finally found such an enigmatic Armenian woman in history,” Abrahamian remembers, “I was drawn because of Armen’s performative work and nomadic life, Lee was drawn to the same I believe, as well as Armen’s supposed queerness.”

The product of this collaboration is described in their press release as “a blend of traditional Armenian dance, erotic performance, spoken word and live music.” For some, myself before this interview included, juxtaposing the term “traditional Armenian” with the word “erotic” clashes with some very prevalent preconceptions about Armenian culture.

Abrahimian is no stranger to the stereotype of a very conservative, religious culture, she’s dealt with it her whole time as an artist, as has Boudakian. In fact, it made things difficult for the pair as they started out as artists and, frankly, she’s tired of hearing it.

“It’s not just others who assume Armenians are typically conservative, but Armenians themselves fall into that cliche as well in their thinking and approach to family and culture,” Abrahimian argues, “I find these assumptions to be irresponsible, constricting and narrow minded – a trap that is heavily laden with learned habits and religious-patriarchal narratives, which is a subject that comes into focus in the play.”

“Our history is full of people who push the envelope like Armen Ohanian did,” she says, “Sergei Parajanov, Atom Egoyan – the fact that we chose to live in such derogatory frameworks, and why we don’t talk about the females who have been a part of these so-called progressive, avant garde movements in Armenian history, is proof that these traps exist. How about we stop referring to the Kardashians as the ambassadors of all Armenian people!”

Speaking of the Kardashians and pop culture (and admittedly reaching for a segue), Abrahamian is probably best know in this city for the Blood Ballet Cabaret, a show that took various pop culture tropes like fantasy/sci fi, high school graduation, Disney, video games, childhood fairy tales and slasher movies, infused them with some damn sexy and creative burlesque dancing and turned them on their heads. While that show may have been dormant for a while, it is coming back with shows as part of this year’s Zoofest.

Cher Armen is produced by Saboteur Productions, a company Abrahamian founded in 2013 with Blood Ballet alum Tiffany Golarz and Abrahamian hopes that the audience she has already developed will check out her new show, despite the different feel.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the BBC,” she comments, “it brought me to this point in my work today and I welcome the BBC audience to see Dear Armen for this reason. Yes, its a more thoughtful piece, but every art form has it’s own way of being clever or embodying a certain message. I’d like to think that we can be open to embrace and play with the different shapes these narratives take.”

The shape this particular narrative will take is one where the audience is expected to move around a bit. They’re calling it audience immersive theatre. The show’s venue was also a mystery for a bit (maybe not one akin to who Armen Ohanian was), one that has now been solved on the show’s Facebook event page.

If you want to immerse yourself in the world of Armen Ohanian and the daring original theatre created by Kamee Abrahamian and her team, there’s still time.

Dear Armen Trailer from Saboteur Productions on Vimeo.

Dear Armen runs one time only in Montreal Sunday, June 1 at 8:30pm (reception 8pm). Reserve your tickets through