EAST OF BERLIN
The Holocaust has generated a huge body of fiction and non-fiction dealing with the horrors and sometimes the heroism of its victims. A sub-genre treats the traumatic suffering of the children of Holocaust survivors. One of those children features in Toronto playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s East of Berlin but she isn’t the play’s central character. Instead, Moscovitch focuses on the child of a victimizer who shares his trauma with the audience. What might you do, the play asks, if you discovered that your father was a Nazi war criminal?
In Alisa Palmer’s intense and powerful Tarragon Theatre production, now playing at the Firehall, co-presented by Touchstone, the Chutzpah! Festival, and the 2010 Cultural Olympiad, Rudi (Brendan Gall) seems perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But who could blame him? Growing up in Paraguay after a childhood spent moving from one South American country to another, chain-smoking Rudi tells us how he learned from his school friend Hermann (Paul Dunn) that his father had been a doctor at Auschwitz, choosing who would live and die, performing horrific experiments on Jewish inmates.
Rudi describes how he confronted his father, how his friendship with homosexual Hermann developed, and how he arranged for his father to catch them having sex. What better way to get back at a Nazi than to show him a homosexual son?
There is one better way. How about marrying a Jewish girl and presenting his father with a Jewish grandchild? Leaving Paraguay for Berlin, Rudi meets Sarah (Diana Donnelly), whose mother had survived Auschwitz. With her Rudi feels “the possibility of undoing” some of his father’s atrocities: “I loved her and that was somehow an act of redemption.” But he can’t tell her the truth about his background or his father’s.
From the beginning Hermann points out Rudi’s ambivalence about his father, and much of the play’s complexity derives from our uncertainty—and Rudi’s own—about his motives. Does he really care about Hermann or love Sarah? Or are they just convenient tools for his love-hate relationship with Herr Daddy? Because the father is only an offstage presence, the focus remains almost entirely on Rudi. Director Palmer places Camellia Koo’s set—a wall of gray bookcases—far downstage so the actors, playing in front of it, are practically in our laps. This increases the intensity but also makes Rudi’s tightly-wound, stammering delivery feel excessive and artificial by the end. At such close quarters simpler would be better.
Otherwise, the acting is superb as are Michael Walton’s lighting effects and John Gzowski’s ominous background music and sound. Moscovitch writes sharp, intelligent dialogue and Palmer paces the play perfectly. This is a great kick-off for the Chutzpah! Festival.