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In Hannah Moscovitch plays, the pull of the past meets the push of the present

Melanie Keller and Billy Fenderson in a scene from the Chicago production of "East of Berlin" by Hannah Moscovitz

Johnny Knight

3.5 out of 4 stars

Playwright Hannah Moscovitch had already made her mark on Canada's theatrical landscape, but with word spreading about the Ottawa native's bold and biting approaches to taboo topics, it was only a matter of time until her notoriety broke through international borders.

Two of the 33-year-old's works, East of Berlin and The Russian Play, form a double bill on now in Chicago - the former a first in the city, the latter in its American debut. The production with Signal Ensemble Theatre, a 15-member storefront company tucked away outside the downtown core, took critics by pleasant surprise when it opened in mid-October. The run quickly sold out, as did its extension until Dec. 18. And with good reason.

Director Ronan Marra treats both scripts in a minimalistic style. In East of Berlin, Rudi (Billy Fenderson) writhes in guilt as the son of an ex-Nazi who falls in love with Sarah (Melanie Keller), the daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, on a mostly empty black stage. Marra chooses his props carefully - a cigarette that hardly leaves Fenderson's hands, a suitcase positioned at the back of the stage, and a door to Rudi's father's study left slightly ajar with a thin line of yellow light pouring through from the room within. All are subtle yet powerfully imposing reminders of the repercussions of a father's past that constantly weigh on his son's present and future.

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Not only symbolic, these objects create several arresting pictures. In an intimate moment between Rudi and his school friend Hermann (Tom McGrath), the two are bathed in a white spotlight in quite a compromising position: Fenderson's back to the audience and McGrath on his knees, a puff of smoke curling and glowing in the light. "Nice image, isn't it?" he asks the audience. It needs no answer.

Even the trains passing outside the theatre seemed to have been planned, rattling by at opportune moments, such as a during a discussion about the transports of Jewish captives from camp to camp.

The cast of Fenderson, McGrath, and Keller ably pulls off double-duty in the evening, their characters in The Russian Play working as foils for those they played in East of Berlin. In both cases, all three give Moscovitch's characters heart, humour, and a harrowing sadness. In East of Berlin, all three are believably torn between the past and the present in an emotionally trying conflict for both the actors and the audience. It is only Fenderson's power-hungry and possessive Kostya in The Russian Play - the story of a doomed tryst between a young Russian flower girl and a gravedigger - that falls slightly on the side of shallow.

The pairing of East of Berlin and The Russian Play is, admittedly, simply a testament of Marra's taste and desire to showcase Moscovitch's work to Chicago audiences. But the two actually have several thematic ties - corrupting and consuming love, past actions haunting the present, and scripts that mix heartbreak and humour. Stylistically, they follow a narrator that jumps through time and place, and Marra establishes his own connection through several costume pieces. However, these connections still leave The Russian Play as a dessert of sorts to the dramatic feast of East of Berlin. Clearly not everyone was still hungry: there were some empty seats for The Russian Play that were once filled for East of Berlin.

This pair of productions is small and simple, but it signals a larger movement. With an upcoming commission from the Manhattan Theatre Club, Moscovitch's profile is beginning to break through in the United States. And if Signal Ensemble Theatre's latest effort is representative of what's to come, her home and native land might have to share her.

East of Berlin and The Russian Play run in Chicago until Dec. 18.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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East of Berlin and The Russian Play

  • Written by Hannah Moscovitch
  • Directed by Ronan Marra
  • Starring Billy Fenderson, Melanie Keller, Tom McGrath
  • At Signal Ensemble Theatre in Chicago

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