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The actors Sarah Sherman, left, Cara Pifko, and Gord Rand, forming a human chain, hold hands for almost the entirety of the 80-minutes running time.

Cylla von Tiedemann/Tarragon Theatre

3.5 out of 4 stars

Title
Abyss
Written by
Maria Milisavljevic
Directed by
Richard Rose
Actors
Cara Pifko
Venue
Tarragon Theatre
City
Toronto​
Runs Until
Sunday, March 15, 2015

There hasn't been as gripping a piece of theatre as Abyss on a Toronto stage in a long while.

German playwright Maria Milisavljevic's thriller concerns the disappearance of a 24-year-old woman named Karla Richter – and three friends who set off in search of her.

Gord Rand plays the missing woman's lover, Vlado; Sarah Sherman plays her roommate, Sophia.

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And Cara Pifko, in a long overdue return to Tarragon Theatre, is the unnamed narrator; just as her character's name is left a blank, so is her exact relationship with Karla. She is Vlado's roommate and sister to Sophia, but all will be revealed in due course. Well, some will be revealed in due course.

As the days tick by and the police launch a half-hearted search into the disappearance of a woman they dismiss as a "party girl," Vlado – like the other main characters, an immigrant to Germany from the Balkans – launches his own investigation, one that takes the characters deep into the Eastern European underworld of the city they inhabit.

Abyss is a suspenseful yarn, fabulously well acted, but what really astonishes about the production is Richard Rose's deceptively simple staging, choreographed with Nova Bhattacharya – and here's where the play is gripping in a different way.

The three actors hold hands, forming a human chain, for almost the entirety of the 80-minutes running time: Pifko in the centre, Rand on her left, Sherman on her right. This restriction on how the actors can move and communicate gesturally is one that leads to constantly creative movement; it becomes a dance piece as well as a thriller.

Rand and Sherman – who play several characters, each – are particularly impressive navigating the tangled, often changing roles simply by changing how they hold Pifko's hand. When Rand switches from Vlado to a mild-mannered computer programmer named Jan, he simply switches from a confident clasp to a loose, entwining of pinkies with Pifko.

As constantly gorgeous as Abyss is to look at, the unusual staging also works well with the themes of Milisavljevic's play. Pifko's character becomes the rope in a tug-of-war between Sophia, who wants to let the police investigate Karla's disappearance, and the knife-carrying Vlado, who distrusts the cops and knows more than he lets on. Our narrator is literally pulled in both directions.

All this takes place on a black platform that hovers in a black abyss. The sculptural lighting, perfectly executed, is by Jason Hand, perfectly named.

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Rose's intimate production gets huge impact out of the smallest gestures: The few moments where the actors do let go of each others' hands make you gasp. Who knew there were so many ways to grip?

For over an hour, Milisavljevic – who translated her own play for this English-language premiere – had me in the palm of her hand. But, as with many thrillers, Abyss's plot became hazy in the final minutes.

Spoiler alert: I can't spoil the show.

That is likely the point: Pifko's beautifully sad narrator keeps a lot buried from us – and perhaps from herself, too. Much of Milisavljevic's play is really about what it is to be an immigrant from the Balkans in Germany – and about tragedies that are too painful to be spoken about, details too hard to reveal. "The old ones don't ask questions, because they know: who wants to tell, speaks; who doesn't want to tell, needs it – the silence," the narrator tells us, during a side trip to visit Vlado's father in Croatia.

Nevertheless, for such an otherwise satisfying production, the ending is a trifle unsatisfying. But I suppose I should channel that intense desire to know the truth towards real-life stories of missing and perhaps murdered marginalized women in my own society.

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