Smoke is the first thing you notice about East of Berlin. Before the audience filed in, there was already a thick haze in the air. Having never been a fan of smoke machines in plays, I was not enthused, but it soon became clear enough why the effect was there. The entire play exists in a fog, which hovers over characters and obscures perceptions, leaving everything in the realm of uncertainty.
The story follows Rudi, a German man raised in Paraguay in a community of former Nazis who fled prosecution. But things change when Rudi discovers his father was not just any Nazi, but a notorious war criminal who performed gruesome scientific experiments at Auschwitz. He moves away to Berlin to simultaneously dig up and bury his past. But when he falls in love with a Jewish woman he grapples with the decision of whether to reveal the truth of his family history.
The cast comprises three University of Saskatchewan alumni. Heather Morrison plays Sarah Kleinman, a Jewish woman from New York who is in Berlin getting in touch with her mother’s Holocaust experience. She delivers raw emotional power and quick-timed wit, seemingly able to lighten or darken the stage with her eyes. James Aaron plays Rudi’s childhood friend Hermann, with a dry wit and a gaze that manages to be both intense and aloof; he has the capacity to draw out a line of dialogue to give it an unexpected sardonic twist.
But Chris Hapke as Rudi dominates the show, capturing deep turmoil beneath a boyish sense of vitality. He offers a brave performance running a gamut of emotions, while always holding the audience rapt within the intimate, confessional style of the piece.
The play is directed by U of S and UBC alum Brian Cochrane. He adopted an open and fluid style for the set to allow for easy transitions in space and time, creating more of a psychological exploration than a physical one. He does not hold back, and serves up the action in a very raw and visceral way. As well, the performance lingers on those moments of blackest humour where the audience has to laugh in spite of the darkness.
Hannah Moscovitch’s script is best described as challenging — not in its accessibility, but in the way it relates to the audience. It consistently poses the question, “What would you have done?” And each time the question is posed, the viewer is less sure. Rudi understandably rails against the atrocities of his father, but makes many questionable choices in the process. Characters have a great aversion to hot-topic words like “Nazi,” “Jew” and “homosexual.” The play captures the paradox of the post-war years, when the still-fresh horrors pounded at people’s minds but no one was sure how to address them.
East of Berlin is a sharp, biting and brutal play, laced with wicked humour and profound philosophical resonances. It is a play about uncertainty that asks hard questions of its viewer, but also provides a comfort in its familiar search for meaning. It will not depress you as other Holocaust-themed plays might, but it will leave you shaken, somewhat off-balance and generally richer for the experience.[box type=”info”]East of Berlin plays at 8 p.m. at the Refinery from Feb. 9-12.[/box]