EAST OF BERLIN
Directed by Alisa Palmer
Written by Hannah Moscovitch
Starring Diana Donnelly,
Paul Dunn, Brendan Gall
In the parking lot of Auschwitz more than a decade after the war, Rudi, the son of a concentration-camp Nazi doctor, is proposing to Sarah, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Sarah is throwing up, partly since she is about to visit the place in which 1.1 million Jews were killed (and where her mother was interned), but mainly because she's pregnant with Rudi's child.
As the history-crossed lovers tour the camp, Rudi has a vision of a cute little family made up of himself, Sarah and their child. The fact that his child will be Jewish is a bonus: "My father was an SS doctor with the Institute for Racial Hygiene and he would have a Jewish grandchild," Rudi says, laughing and smirking. What more can an Aryan boy do to atone for the sins of his father?
If some or all of the above is making you uncomfortable, not knowing whether to laugh or gasp in horror, then you're in the right headspace for Hannah Moscovitch, the in-demand young playwright of Essay and The Russian Play. Her new one, East of Berlin, opened on Wednesday at the Tarragon Theatre in a gripping production stylishly designed by Camellia Koo and moodily lit by Michael Walton.
It's still the work of a writer experimenting with voice (her own and others) and trying to find a room of her own in the naturalistic house that Toronto theatre built. Yet the thrill of watching East of Berlin is in following a playwright reconciling the derivative and the original, the past and the present, trauma and reconciliation - in her own mind and in the lives of her characters.
And it must be said: Moscovitch knows her history and loves her psychology. East of Berlin begins in 1960s Paraguay, where Rudi's father, like many Nazi brass, has relocated and started a new life after the war. Rudi (Brendan Gall) is raised in a historical bubble, sheltered from his father's and Germany's past. His life changes dramatically when he meets Hermann (Paul Dunn), the precocious son of another war criminal who succeeds in awaking the historical beast in Rudi - and, to a lesser extent, the homosexual. Rudi sets off on a journey of self-discovery and self-imposed exile to Germany, where he meets Sarah (Diana Donnelly), a Jewish New Yorker. The two are digging into their family histories from opposite ends of the postwar spectrum.
It would have been the more predictable, victim-art route for Moscovitch to write East of Berlin from Sarah's perspective. Easy doesn't work for Moscovitch.
Taking her inspiration from the relatively recent scholarship covering the psychological legacy of the Holocaust on the children of Nazis, Moscovitch gives Rudi the driving seat in this narrative. He's our fourth-wall-breaking narrator, a modernly conflicted tragic hero and extremely charming guide into a moral minefield. If there's sympathy, it's not for the devil, but for his son. In this sense, Gall's performance is a brave one: at once charming and twisted, tormented and flippant. East of Berlin is a platform work for the playwright, but also a career-defining performance for its leading man.
Both writer and actor are in good hands with Alisa Palmer, a director who is having one hell of a good year with The Philanderer at Shaw, Top Girls for Soulpepper and a chance at the Siminovitch Prize next week. The established Palmer has kept the youthful spirit of the script and its characters. Moscovitch credits her as a dramaturge in the program, but Palmer's real impact can be felt on the stage, in a production with an emotional and intellectual focus that seamlessly travels across continents and about 40 years of history.
You can also see Palmer's not-so-invisible hands helping to give Donnelly what she needs to lend Sarah dramatic weight onstage. Neither Palmer nor Moscovitch can do much to turn Hermann into more than a plot convenience (twice, in Paraguay as a teenager and then in Germany as an adult), and it's to Dunn's credit that he soldiers on regardless.
The underwritten Hermann and Sarah suggest that Moscovitch's primary concern is and always will be Rudi's mind and psyche. It's a dangerous, tortured place to explore, but she wades in with fearlessness and a sympathetic eye for its humanity. Her approach is a mask that reveals more than it hides, and Moscovitch wears both sides of it very well indeed.