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Thursday Theatre Review: East of Berlin

As the Book of Exodus tells us, the sins of the father are inevitably visited upon the son. In the Tarragon Theatre's production of East of Berlin, the question of inherited guilt and the impossibility of escaping the past is more than a biblical epithet-- it's a reality that looms threateningly large in the lives of its characters.

East of Berlin tells the story of Rudi, the son of a German war criminal living with his family in Paraguayan exile. He knows nothing of his father's wartime activities, until a schoolmate reveals the monstrous reality. How Rudi copes- or fails to cope- with this revelation forms the core of the play as he lurches between countries and doomed relationships. It is heart-breakingly beautiful production, featuring pitch-perfect performances and incredible design.

This is very much Rudi's story, told through a series of monologues and flashbacks. If the audience isn't along for the ride, then the play doesn't work. Fortunately, Brendan Gall's portrayal of Rudi is nearly perfect. Gall brings humor and humanity to the role, and manages to convey Rudi's intense inner conflict with startling clarity. I've also rarely seen an actor not finish sentences so artfully. Gall seems to have a preternatural ability to say more with a broken clause than many other actors do in entire paragraphs of text.

Diana Donnelly as Sarah and Paul Dunn as Herman also turn in quality performances, although they have a lot less to work with. Both supporting characters are somewhat underwritten, existing more as manifestations of Rudi's tortured journey than actual people. Still, Donnelly manages to bring a real honesty to her performace, while Dunn injects subtle vulnerability into the otherwise emotionally vampiric Herman.

Camellia Koo's set is fantastic, pushing the action of the play more or less into the laps of the audience. Tarragon's Extra Space is a small theatre to begin with, but Koo cuts it down even further to create an intimate performance space. This proximity can be a tad uncomfortable at times, especially for people in the front row, but this fits in well with the overall atmosphere of the production. Michael Walton's lighting design is also effective, helping create the seamless shifts of time and space required by the script. But the real production star is John Gzowski's sound design. Some scenes feature old Nazi propagada songs, played at a hauntingly low volume. In others, Gzowski uses only tones, yet still manages to underscore the emotional weight of the action. After recently suffering through several overly complex sound designs, Gzowski's perfectly realized minimalism is like a breath of fresh air.

While the performances and design in East of Berlin are excellent, the greatest strength of the play is the bravery of its script. Playwright Hannah Moscovitch tackles some of the most urgent questions of recent human history. Namely, how could the perpetrators of the Holocaust have done what they did? To what extent does that same potential for evil live in all of us? And, most importantly, can you ever kill the past? These questions are ultimately unanswerable, but the act of asking them is profoundly important. The fact that Moscovitch manages to frame them within a very moving human story is a real accomplishment. In the face of impossible questions, many writers become heavy handed and polemical. Moscovitch lets her characters grapple with each conundrum individually, and the result is a fine piece of theatre.

East of Berlin is a well-acted and well-produced play. But more than that, it is important and brave work, signalling the arrival of a compelling new voice in Canadian drama. A must-see show, by any definition.

East of Berlin continues at the Tarragon Theatre until Nov. 25. For tickets, visit Totix.ca or call 416.531.1827.

Photo: Diana Donnelly as Sarah and Brendan Gall as Rudi. By Cylla von Tiedemann.


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