27 May 2006

707) 'The Time of Your Life' Saroyan play at Turkish State Theaters

A Saroyan play at Turkish State Theaters for the first time: 'The Time of Your Life'

A person does not recall his/her memories without a reason. Often there is a connection: A word, a voice, a name or an object. A play I saw recently at the Ankara State Theater's Akün Theater first took me back to the past, towards the end of the 1960s, and then further.

In those black-and-white years when TV broadcasts were newly launched, one of the most favored TV series was “Colombo.” His dubbed voice probably had even more of an impact than the original would have. The admired actor of Turkish cinema and theater, Savaş Başar, was dubbing Colombo.

During the years when TV was not around, when newspapers were black and white and were not that keen on sensational celebrity news, we used to read translated short stories on Sundays. Among them the most favored were those written by Pirandello and William Saroyan.

When Saroyan visited Istanbul in 1964, the entire Turkish press paid a great deal of attention to him, running interviews with that interesting, huge-bearded man who was wearing a hat, and furthermore, even more papers started publishing Saroyan stories on Sundays. Saroyan, during his visit, went to the eastern Anatolian province of Bitlis, where his parents were born and grew up, and tasted bulgur pilav with ayran, two authentic elements of Turkish cuisine.

Saroyan was the child of an Armenian family who immigrated to America from Bitlis. His real name was Aram Karaoğlanyan. His novel titled “The Human Comedy” was praised both as a novel and a film but he owed his fame in Turkey mainly to his short stories in which he outlined the daily lives of ordinary people.

Translations of his short stories, particularly those published by Aras Publishing, are still being sold in bookstores but in recent years, probably due to political reasons and with the effect of the Armenian terror, Saroyan's name has almost forgotten been in Turkey.

As for his plays, we know that his “The Oyster and The Pearl” was translated into Turkish by Memet Fuat. As far as I can remember, it was staged in Istanbul then. But no one recalls a play by Saroyan put on stage by the State Theaters. This, for the first time, was realized in Ankara recently. Saroyan's “The Time of Your Life” (Hayatı Yaşamak) is being staged at Ankara's Akün Theater and will be featured in the next season as well.

The person who caused my memory to connect Savaş Başar with William Saroyan is theater director Kemal Başar; the son of Savaş Başar -- the voice of Colombo.

Kemal Başar has produced the play in the memory of his father, who he recalls saying, “He was a human… he was an actor since he was a human, a human since he was an actor.”

Başar has abridged the six-act play, which Saroyan wrote in six days using a borrowed typewriter, into two acts by distributing the roles of several other characters to the main roles.

It is evident that Başar, while analyzing it, has fully comprehended Saroyan's point in the play, which depicts the contrasts of “war and peace” and “bad and good” via the concepts of “inside and outside,” which the playwright materialized as “bar and street,” while highlighting the common problems of a population formed by people of diverse origins in America. Başar makes use of the Akün Theater's stage -- successfully converted from a movie theater into a theater hall by architect Özgür Ecevit -- and depicts the “inside” just like an aquarium. Meanwhile the “outside” is the “world” where all kinds of brutality exist, with security forces terrorizing the public, people struggling to earn a living, the winds of war blowing…

The actors' performances were good in general. This was the first time I watched Aykut Ünal, who plays the leading role of Joe. It is clear that he has a full grasp of his role, and he was greatly successful in reflecting its spirit. I learned that Aykut Ünal was the son of contrabass player Yalçın Ünal, who retired from the Presidential Symphony Orchestra (CSO) three years ago, after I came across that old friend of mine that night. Other actors -- Selçuk Özdoğan, Bilal Gürdere and Aslı Kılan -- help make the performance a good one.

But what enhances the play the most is Yener Turan -- a Modern Dance Ensemble member included in the cast at the director's choice -- and Ankara State Opera tenor Semih Bayraktar. These two characters, while underlining the innocence and goodwill of humankind, also help in reducing the pessimism in the play via the lively music and dance. The choice of music, which is illustrated as being played from a jukebox further enhancing the play's mood, is excellent. The songs are American songs from 1914-1939.

Another surprise in the play, which Kemal Başar dedicated to his father, is that Savaş Başar plays one of the supporting roles. But this Savaş Başar is the director's son, who carries the name of his grandfather. Savaş Başar plays the role of the paperboy with success. Saroyan was trying to earn a living by selling papers on streets when he was only nine.

Kemal Başar made one interesting change in the play while abbreviating it. In the original synopsis, the paperboy is Greek and comes from Thessaloniki. But in Başar's rendition, the paperboy replies to a question about where he comes from by saying, “I am Turkish… I come from İzmir,” receiving great applause from the audience.

“The Time of Your Life” is likely to be a driving force when the next season opens in autumn.

In the meantime, an assessment on the program booklet: These booklets are not pieces of paper designed to put aside after looking at their pictures. Just the opposite, they are functional documents designed to be of use during the play. So they have to be “functional” in fact. And the first prerequisite for it to be functional is that the text be in big font so it can be read. In booklets recently published by the State Theaters, the cast of the plays printed on the back cover are written in very small font. Since the audience does not have a chance to obtain and read the booklet in advance, one can imagine how difficult it is to read and understand the cast list in the dark theater hall.

If the State Theaters is to insist on the current booklet style just because it is “looks good,” at least a readable cast list should be printed on inexpensive paper and be handed out to audiences for free, just like the State Opera does!


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