When commencing her acting career as a California-reared high school student, Merri Rashoyan found herself consumed with courting opportunities and cultivating means to mature as a performer, with distinction in a Shakespearean competition as the biggest evidence of her earnestness. Always enamored with the theatrical world’s offerings, especially the physical challenges, the 24-year-old is enjoying her involvement in “a high adventure,” playing five characters in The Renegade Company’s “Beowulf/Grendel.”
“There’s so much to be thankful for because of this show,” the resident of the 900 block of Moore Street said of the work that draws inspiration from “Beowulf,” an Old English epic poem attributed to an Anglo-Saxon bard. “I’m really proud that it’s opening a new realm for me, since I was able to do some writing and piece together some music for it.”
The East Passyunk Crossing dweller and two other women are handling the 64-minute concept by director Maura Krause through Sunday, with Southwest Philly’s Mount Moriah Cemetery as the setting. The world-premiere strengthens the mission of Renegade, under South Philly denizen and artistic director Michael Durkin, to celebrate, challenge, and deconstruct the iconography of quintessential artworks and create theatrical pieces that repurpose those works, with Rashoyan particularly pleased that females are the focus of the interpretation.
“I had no real knowledge of the text before Maura approached me,” the actress said. “This project, then, is my exposure to ‘Beowulf,’ and it’s a real delight, especially since women are taking on such a masculine work.”
Renegade’s release for the endeavor notes “Enter the cemetery. Follow one of two figures, standing in the sunset. You won’t know if you have yoked yourself to Beowulf or Grendel — until the end. There is a monster in the dark, atop a pile of bodies. Will you be able to see clearly enough to know who it is?” That sense of mystery ends up intensified thanks to the setting, which Rashoyan deems “a spooky, spooky place.” A character in its own right, the site makes for an interesting experience for the hires, with the local declaring “Each show is a war with the space.”
“This is one of the most physically demanding works for me,” Rashoyan said of the promenade style piece. “We have to adapt, too, and that’s a good challenge because it teaches additional perseverance and devotion to a goal.”
With The Poet and Grendel’s Mother among her handful of assignments, the poised presence loves that she has been able to acquire a richer appreciation of the text and placement within, as the promotional material says, “a world where storytelling is always suspect, and any deed can wear the guise of honor.”
“The epicness of the whole process and the nature of ‘Beowulf’ is what really struck me,” Rashoyan said. “It’s pretty easy to feel small in comparison to such a time-tested story, so I love that we’re putting our mark on it, and I love that I’m doing so with Renegade because it likes to take risks and challenge conceptions about how far we can go with our mastery of it and desire to make something out of it for our lives.”
The Los Angeles product is akin to Renegade in that during her initial years as a theater practitioner, she considered herself “very bold.” Long possessive of a pull toward theater, she chose to pursue the discipline as a high school sophomore, with “The Crucible” as her initial production.
“It was the coolest thing I’d ever done up to that moment,” Rashoyan said of her participation in the Arthur Miller-penned staging. “I became more and more compelled to see what was possible for me as a performer.”
Theater beat out history for her affection, with the thespian confessing her admiration for high school instructors who possessed such a penchant for conveying the past that their lessons made sagas sound as if they had come from a soap opera. Teacher Adrienne Alvarez proved her chief theatrical influence when at AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian School, encouraging her comfort as she studied cherished works, including the Shakespearean canon.
“When you pick up the rhythm and really invest in the content, there’s so much to gain from reading a Shakespeare play,” Rashoyan said. “I became psyched to get at the heart of the text and broaden my emotional investment in the plots.”
Claiming the English-Speaking Union Los Angeles Branch regional competition crown, she headed to New York in April 2009 for the national Shakespeare pageant, placing in the top 15.
“I bonded with so many other students with such a pull toward this life,” Rashoyan said of her Empire State sojourn, which included a Broadway stop to see “Waiting for Godot” and her performance of a sonnet and a monologue. “I started to find my people, and I came to realize where I feel most comfortable.”
Winning a scholarship as “Most Promising Young Person” from the University of the Arts, she chose to matriculate at the Center City-headquartered institution and quickly connected with Philadelphia, finding it a supreme source of friends and a terrific influence on her tenacity.
“I came here very hungry to learn more,” she said of what has become a six-year love affair with the metropolis. “My education provided me with so much, and I have met some outstanding people who really think the world of this way of life because it’s thought-provoking, honest, and instructional.”
With new play development and devised theater as passions, Rashoyan touted two PlayPenn experiences and involvement with the 2014 FringeArts Festival through “Mad Blood and Other Beauties,” which she dubbed “‘Romeo and Juliet’ spun on its head,” as key to her evolution, with “Beowulf/Grendel” another thrilling component of her burgeoning career’s allegiance to novelty.
“You’ll never hear me say there’s anything wrong with Shakespeare or other old works,” she noted. “It’s great to see original work looking to teach audiences, too, though.”
Firmly planted on the East Coast, Rashoyan, who soon will appear in “Strange Tenants” for Sam Tower + Ensemble, looks forward to further immersion into the theater scene and to increased interactions with her peers in South Philly.
“I enjoy the vibe down here,” she said. “I’ve always liked history, and it has that plus a ton of potential.” ■
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Portrait Photo by Tina Garceau
Production Photo by Provided by Daniel Kontz