by Macey Levin
Rudi, A young German man, watches his life fall apart as he learns of his father’s past. The results of this knowledge is exacerbated when he falls in love with Sarah, a Jewish-American. These relationships are at the core of the brilliant production of East of Berlin by Hannah Moscovitch, one of Canada’s foremost playwrights, currently at Catskill, New York’s Bridge Street Theatre.
At the opening, after several years Rudi (Orlando Grant) is returning from Germany to re-join his parents in Paraguay. Relating his story to the audience through flashbacks, what starts as a seemingly simple homecoming becomes a series of horrific realizations. His presumed friend Herrmann (JD Scalzo) tells Rudi his belief that his his father’s involvement in World War Two as a combatant is a lie. Actually, he was a doctor in Auschwitz who performed medical experiments on Jewish prisoners. This knowledge drives him away from his parents and into Germany where he attempts to certify his father’s history. Rudi creates a story about his parentage and refuses to discuss his earlier life while he fabricates a totally different story including a change of name.
While doing research in an archival institution he meets Sarah (Kara Arena) and they fall into a love affair with plans for marriage. Her father was in an American armed forces brigade that freed concentration camp prisoners, her mother an Auschwitz survivor. Though she believes her father will not accept her marrying a German, she proceeds with arranging the wedding. When truths emerge, Rudi and Sarah must face horrifying realities and terrible pain.
The play is beautifully directed by Margo Whitcomb who also directed Moscovitch’s Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes last year, also at Bridge Street. In her program notes she writes: “(Moscovitch) asks more questions than provides answers. She situates her characters in extremis: constructing ambiguities in exploring questions of morality that ask the audience to wrestle with and reconcile these thorny enigmas.”
The pace of the production creates tension moment by moment, but still allows the audience to be empathetic toward Rudi and Sarah. Emotions often run high, but Whitcomb keeps them under control creating dramatic values and not just words. Her staging is fluid. For instance, the cast unobtrusively moves furniture pieces while playing scenes of mundane dialogue or emotional moments. This is a very precise and moving production.
The work by the three actors is intuitively sensitive. Where some confrontations could be melodramatic, they are, instead, informed by well-textured subtleties. Mr. Scalzo’s Herrmann is charming and snake-like. Why he does what he does is impossible to accept, yet it is difficult to fully dislike him. Ms. Arena runs a full gamut of emotions seamlessly, from great joy to all-encompassing anger. At first somewhat stand-offish upon meeting Rudi, whom she knows as Otto, she loves him enough to forsake her family, if necessary. Events, however, trigger an emotional crisis that could have been maudlin, but in her hands and talent is shattering.
Mr. Grant is the central power of the play; his performance, filled with humor, pathos and distress, is enhanced by nuance. The character is tri-lingual – Spanish, German and English. The phrasing of his speeches is touched by accent and rhythm informing us of his various backgrounds. From the very opening he draws us into his life. As he takes his long journey and contends with emotions he has never experienced, his performance becomes more complex and dynamic. It is a very difficult role which he fulfills with insight and humanity.
The scenery designed by John Sowle is uncluttered using minimal props and furniture. He has also incorporated stylistic projections to suggest various locations, i.e. shelves of books for the archives or brick walls to represent Auschwitz. His lighting, a work of art, consistently creates the underlying tone of each scene. The sound design by Zak Kline, complementing the lighting, is obvious but not intrusive. Michelle Rogers’ costumes, similarly to all the technical aspects of the play, are simple, with subdued colors and are informative of character.
This is a truly theatrical production that held the audience rapt for ninety minutes. Not a cough, not even a sneeze, one could feel the concentration. Bridge Street has a well-deserved reputation for producing off-beat and challenging work. East of Berlin is one of their best. See this stunning production! It plays through June 4th.
East of Berlin by Hannah Moscovitch; Director: Margo Whitcomb; Cast: Orlando Grant (Rudi), JD Scalzo (Herrmann) Kara Arena (Sarah); Production Stage Manager: Kiaro Vedovino; Set and Light Design: John Sowle; Costume Design: Michelle Rogers; Sound Design: Zak Kline; Intimacy Choreography by Yvonne Perry; Judaic Consultation by Tepper Saffran and Cantor Suzanne Bernstein; Dialect Consultation by Gregor Clark.
Running time: 90 minutes no intermission; 5/25/23-6/4/23; bridgestreettheatre.org