brendan gall and diana donnelly
This is a review that I wrote for Tarragon Theatre’s East of Berlin, written by Hannah Moscovitch, one year ago. The show has been remounted for the second time due to popular demand and it will play at the Tarragon (30 Bridgman Avenue, Toronto) until January 31st, 2010.
“I have read numerous memoirs penned by Holocaust survivors throughout my Canadian education. I have contemplated how complex the aftermath can be for survivors and their families- specifically while reading plays like Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror and a work like My Name is Rachel Corrie. I have used laughter as a weapon while applauding The Producers. I have frequently been repulsed by the thought that humans are capable of inflicting such horrors on one another, and have vowed adamantly to “never forget.” But, I had never once thought of an S.S. Guard existing outside of a Concentration Camp, and I definitely had never conceived that he might have had children. But, of course they did. It seems so obvious. But history is funny like that. We don’t like to humanize the villains too much.
In her play, East of Berlin, Hannah Moscovitch gives us Rudi, an awkward, but ultimately charming, guide into the murky world of post-war Paraguay, a not so secret, not entirely hidden refuge for former high ranking Nazi officials. It is a world where Hitler’s birthday is celebrated at the bar, and where a seventeen year old can discover that his father had performed medical experiments on human beings at Auschwitz. Here we confront the questions with ambivalent answers- can we divorce the actions of a parent from our perceptions of a child? How far does familial loyalty go? At what point do we abandon our morals in order to look out for our own self interest- or- at what point do we abandon our pursuit of self interest and decide to take a moral stand? What motivates us to make our decisions? Are they ever pure? Is there a “wrong” reason to love someone, just like there is a wrong reason to hate someone? This play could read like an essay, it could be Brechtian and alienating- but thankfully Moscovitch has created complex, specific characters and brilliantly engaging dialogue. She balances the darkness with a sense of humor and a strong sense of irony. “Who said that?” Rudi asks himself after reciting a quote, starring at the audience, “I hope it wasn’t Hitler.”
The play is led expertly by director Alisa Palmer, who thrusts the action into the audience’s lap, so that they feel as though they are in the same room with the three characters. Implicit in the action. The intimacy works wonders, except during the two sex acts, which became extremely mechanical due to the sightlines where I was sitting. On the other hand, there was a particularly beautiful tender moment between Rudi and Sarah while they were reading a Jewish prayer book that had a true sense of subtly and sincerity.
Diana Donnelly plays Sarah, a Jewish girl searching for her past, who refuses to be clichéd. She expresses hostility toward her Holocaust survivor mother and an interest in Rudi’s father’s military jacket. Donnelly gives a somewhat off-kilter performance that does justice to Sarah’s quirkiness. Paul Dunn is perfect as Hermann, a sardonic boy with emotions all bottled up, who would never admit it. The subtext Dunn creates is absolutely brilliant, as he expresses and represses in constant, rapid, succession. The star of the show is undeniably Brendan Gall, who infuses Rudi with so much detail and specificity that he truly comes to life before your eyes. It is Gall who is responsible for most of the magic in this show. He is our point of entry into this strange, unfamiliar world and through him we watch Rudi wrestle with the conflicts in his soul determined to find a black and white answer. He is fraught with humanity- his perfectly natural fractured speech patterns, his sheepish smile, the awkward way he proposes to Sarah at the parking lot of Auschwitz…
I think what’s important is that we keep remembering to ask the questions.”
East of Berlin is playing now until January 31st, 2010 at the Tarragon Theatre (30 Bridgman Avenue, Toronto) for more information please visit www.tarragontheatre.com or call 416.531.1827.