Hannah Moscovitch‘s play East of Berlin is familiar territory for Tarragon‘s extra space. Remember Rosa Laborde’s Léo, which was remounted last season? Well, here’s another show in the same space that’s set in South America, has political subject matter, spans the life of its main character, and features only two other actors, a man and a woman, both of whom he has sex with. This may be a bit of a tangent, but Torontoist is a little curious as to why so many Canadian plays are about depressing periods of socio-political upheaval in foreign countries. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, and many rather fantastic plays (Moscovitch’s included) haven’t been written along these lines. It’s just that the frequency with which these plays are written and produced can be a tad overwhelming; it’s pretty much guaranteed that Tarragon, Factory, Passe Muraille and CanStage will all include at least one such show in every season.
Getting back on topic, East of Berlin is itself a real treat, and not just another depressing-foreign-political-situation retread. It tells the story of Rudi, a young man who grows up in Paraguay after the Second World War, but doesn’t discover until he’s seventeen that the reason he and his German parents immigrated is that his father served as a “physician” at Auschwitz. Rudi tells his story to the audience, having just arrived back in Paraguay after a lengthy sojourn in Berlin, and revisits his past through a series of flashbacks. The play ruminates on how such a weighty piece of knowledge affects a person’s life; everything that Rudi does after discovering the truth is some sort of reaction to his father’s life. The first half of the play focuses on his relationship with his gay best friend Hermann, the person who tells him the truth about his father. His first act of rebellion against his Nazi doctor father? Allowing him to discover his only son having sex with Hermann in his study. His second act makes up the play’s second half, during which Rudi is a student in Berlin and begins a love affair with a Jewish American named Sarah.
Moscovitch’s dialogue is terrific: as smart as it is funny and as poignant as it is political. And the cast is certainly up for the challenge; Brendan Gall in particularl is delightful as the central Rudi. Particular attention is also due to Camellia Koo’s set design, which is absolutely gorgeous and the best use of the Tarragon extra space Torontoist has ever seen. A long bookcase that extends well into the exposed backstage area is pushed almost to the very front of the stage, making the audience feel as though they are right inside the action. The bookcase itself is lovingly detailed, full of sundry volumes, artifacts and pictures. This is a banner year for Moscovitch, who also has a double bill at Factory opening in January, which is an impressive feat for such a young playwright. East of Berlin may not be her strongest work. The ending is somewhat cliché and there is a disparity between Rudi the narrator and Rudi in the flashbacks. In the flashbacks, he is willful, stupid and often graceless, whereas in the present he appears much more polished, witty and self-possessed. We feel we are going to witness his transformation from one Rudi to another, but this never really happens. Nevertheless, this is an incredibly strong production of an exciting new writer’s work, and you’d definitely be spending your time wisely by making the trip to Bridgman Avenue.
Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.