Moscovitch Makes it All Murky

It is a testament to Tarragon Theatre that I am once again sitting down to write a review of a production that has sold-out its entire extended run. It seems partially foolish to even write the review at all, considering that there are no tickets available, so clearly my job is no longer purely promotional. Helping to sell tickets to shows is only one part of my mission in running this blog, however; the most exciting aspect for me is to share my admiration for the artists who create the work that theatres sell tickets to, to raise awareness of these artists within and outside the theatre community, and to lend my voice in support for Canadian theatre. And so, I write a review of Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s play East of Berlin, which plays until Sunday at the Tarragon.
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.
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 for 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…
At the end of the play there are no answers and nothing is tied up in a pretty little package. Everything is quite messy and now the audience is implicated. A new perspective has been added to the dozens of others that we must consider in attempt to figure out where we stand morally and ethically as human beings. It is a perspective that grays everything in its path. How does the past inform the present? Can we ever escape it, or by just being born does it have us ensnared? If we divorce ourselves from our history, do we risk missing the lesson and forgetting? Can we be too quick to play the victim, or wallow in guilt for too long?
Surely these questions are all pertinent as we continue to construct the postwar world. And it’s murky. Like East of Berlin, there is no obvious dramatic arc and tidy ending. Life goes on and we may never know the answers.
I think what’s important is that we keep remembering to ask the questions.

East of Berlin will play at Vancouver’s Touchstone Theatre February 18-28th and then at Edmonton’s Theatre Network from March 10th-29th, 2009. If you are there- you should go!

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