Diving Into a Mysterious Abyss
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Diving Into a Mysterious Abyss

Tarragon Theatre continues its German fixation with Maria Milisavljevic's engrossing but enigmatic thriller.

Sarah Sherman, left, Gord Rand, right, and Cara Pifko star in Tarragon Theatre's production of Abyss  Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Sarah Sherman, left; Gord Rand, right; and Cara Pifko star in Tarragon Theatre’s production of Abyss. Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Tarragon Theatre Extraspace (30 Bridgman Avenue)
Runs to March 15
stars 3andahalf9

Tarragon Theatre is becoming Toronto’s go-to place for contemporary German theatre. OK, that may be exaggerating things a bit, but it is true that Tarragon—when not serving its primary purpose of producing new Canadian work—has been showing a decidedly Teutonic preference in recent seasons. There was that bravura staging of Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Golden Dragon in 2012, as well as Theatre Smash’s guest production of Marius von Mayenburg’s The Ugly One last year. And this season we’ve seen artistic director Richard Rose’s English-language replication of Thomas Ostermeier’s An Enemy of the People—a bold update of Ibsen’s play originally created for Berlin’s Schaubühne theatre.

Now Maria Milisavljevic, the young German playwright who translated Enemy for Tarragon, is giving us a taste of her own work. Abyss, currently running in the theatre’s Extraspace, is an English version of her 2013 play Brandung, originally produced to acclaim at Berlin’s Deutsches Theater. It’s an engrossing, poetical mystery, stunningly staged by Rose and performed with laser-like precision by its three actors. It’s also a wilfully enigmatic work that leaves you sifting through a heap of symbols and portents, trying to figure out what the playwright is driving at. It would be tempting to conclude that something has been lost in translation, if Milisavljevic herself didn’t happen to be the translator.

The mystery concerns a lively young woman named Karla Richter, who cheerfully skips out one evening in the pouring rain to buy cheese for a pizza and never comes back. Karla’s lover and friend set out to find her, aided by the friend’s boyfriend and sister. As days pass and Karla remains missing, the friends, frustrated by the callous indifference of the police, launch an internet campaign and follow clues that lead them into the city’s lawless Russian quarter.

On the one hand, this is a very contemporary play, set among Germany’s immigrant communities, its characters teetering between assimilation and alienation. And it’s written in the currently fashionable minimalist style, with characters listed in the program as just “I,” “He,” and “She.” At the same time, however, it harkens back to that classic of cryptic cinema, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, which was also about a missing young woman and the lover and friend who search for her. And, like that 1960 film, Abyss ends up being more about the seekers than the person being sought.

The story is narrated by the friend, played by Cara Pifko, who remains nameless. She and her sister Sophia (Sarah Sherman) are second-generation Germans with roots in the former Yugoslavia, while Karla’s boyfriend, Vlado (Gord Rand), is a Serbian immigrant. Haunted by memories of the Bosnian War, in which he lost his mother, Vlado searches for Karla with a feverish determination. He’s the stormy opposite of the narrator’s sweet boyfriend, Jan (also played by Rand), who is a genial, tea-sipping German. Vlado and the narrator prefer strong Russian coffee with murky dregs at the bottom—one of the play’s many symbolic touches.

As her surname suggests, Milisavljevic is also of Serbian stock and her writing is at its sharpest when she’s contrasting a complacent German society with the rough-edged Serbs, Croats, and Russians who continue to lug around the baggage of their troubled homelands. The police’s disinterest in Karla’s case is particularly stinging for a Canadian audience, reminding us of our own missing aboriginal women and the way that they, too, have been marginalized. But the playwright is conscious of slipping into cultural stereotypes herself: at one point, the narrator wryly compares a meeting with a classic vodka-swilling Russian named Ivan to a scene in a Hollywood thriller, while Vlado later bonds with an elderly German whose past turns out to be as tragic as his own.

The problem is that Milisavljevic has also filled her play with all kinds of Sturm und Drang effects, which get us keyed up to expect something momentous. Rand’s moody, knife-packing Vlado repeatedly recites verses from “Nis Randers,” a dramatic poem by Otto Ernst about a shipwreck and rescue. Sherman’s She keeps breaking violently into the play’s narrative with step-by-step instructions for killing and skinning a rabbit. There are frequent references to the abyss of the title—the hidden depths below the sea where Vlado, Karla, and the narrator swam during an idyllic summer in Croatia.

In the end, however, the mystery’s resolution is vague and unconvincing. Without giving it away, it proves only that the play’s narrator is an unreliable one and there was clearly more to Karla than just the sunny, childlike personality she’s described to us. Milisavljevic has taken what is ultimately merely the story of a sad love triangle and burdened it with a significance that it can’t carry. But for all that, she sure knows how to spin a taut tale of suspense, and Tarragon has given her script a first-rate treatment.

The play’s German title, Brandung, translates as “breaking waves” and, indeed, it surges forward compellingly in Rose’s highly physical production. Standing on a raised platform (the simple set and exquisite lighting are by Jason Hand), the three actors hold one another’s hands during the entire 80-minute performance, while Nova Bhattacharya’s choreography has them constantly stretching, twisting, and entwining their human chain. Pifko’s narrator brings a matter-of-fact urgency to even the lyrical passages, while Rand turns on a knife-blade, as it were, from a rugged and gloomy Vlado to the boyish Jan. Sherman, making a striking Tarragon debut, is sympathetic as the pragmatic Sophia and serves up tasty Slavic impersonations as the gruff Ivan and a young mother called Varvara, who also lives in the Russian zone.

Despite its flaws, Abyss is a fresh, exciting play that marks Milisavljevic as a playwright to watch. Hopefully, we’ll continue to see her work on this side of the Atlantic.