By Hannah Moscovitch. Directed by Alisa Palmer. A Tarragon Theatre production presented by Touchstone Theatre, the Chutzpah! Festival, the Firehall Arts Centre, and the Vancouver 2010 Cultural Olympiad. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Thursday, February 19. Continues until February 28
The exquisite and the annoying vie for stage time in this production of East of Berlin from Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre.
Rudi, the narrator, explains that he grew up in Paraguay and was 17 when his friend Hermann broke the news that Rudi’s dad was a Nazi doctor at Auschwitz. Later, in his father’s study, Rudi rebels by having sex with Hermann. Then he flees to Berlin, where he falls in love with Sarah, a New Yorker whose mother survived the Holocaust.
Some of the script’s dynamics are fantastically complex. Rudi and Sarah’s mutual attraction is fetishistic; they’re hot for one another because she’s a Jew and his dad was a Nazi. But there’s much that’s healthy as well as tainted in their attempts to heal their parents’ pasts through love.
Hannah Moscovitch’s writing is frequently funny. When Rudi is shocked at the news about his dad, the precociously jaded Hermann asks, “Don’t you wonder why you’re in Paraguay?”
Alisa Palmer’s direction often enhances the script. Early in their affair, Rudi pesters Sarah to recite a Yiddish prayer for the dead. She finally caves, mumbling it at top speed like a bored schoolgirl. Then a mournful tone slowly grows in John Gzowski’s sound design. The emotional texture of the recitation shifts ever so slightly and, without being sentimental, the moment is wrenching.
Michael Walton’s lighting design and Camellia Koo’s set—a wall of library shelves pushed very close to the front of the stage—both make masterful contributions to the claustrophobic sense of warmth and darkness.
There were things that bugged me, though, including Brendan Gall’s performance as Rudi. The guy is obviously gifted. He stutters and stammers and twists instantly from sorrow to flippancy. That’s great for a while, but it’s all he does, and it starts to feel like he can’t stop plucking the same four high-pitched notes on a violin.
This problem is rooted in the script. All three of Moscovitch’s characters speak in essentially the same pattern: none of them can complete a sentence. Paul Dunn displays wonderfully droll comic timing as Hermann. There’s emotional depth there too. But Dunn’s delivery is so much like Gall’s that their scenes together feel mannered.
Playing Sarah, Diana Donnelly is an absolute knockout. She smoothes the script’s rhythms to find a distinctive voice. And Donnelly is one of those extraordinary performers who can embody several contradictory feelings at once and make them all true.