Part of growing up is coming to the realization that your parents aren’t exactly who you thought they were when you were a child. They lived for a relatively long time before your birth, had their own careers, loves, and transgressions. Though that specific version of them is lost forever by virtue of having children, the shadows of the past still play an active role in the psychology of the present. This is the ostensible theme of Players’ Theatre’s first production of the Winter season, East of Berlin, which unfortunately fails to delve much deeper than that.
Written by Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch and directed by McGill’s Anna Fitz, the play follows Rudi (Francesca Scotti-Goetz), the son of one of the infamous ‘Nazi doctors’ of the holocaust who has to come to terms with his father’s evil. Born in Germany at the end of the war, but whisked away to South America to avoid capture, Rudi meets the son of a Polish officer (Guy Ettlin) who informs him of Germany’s actions. After finding out the true nature of his father’s transgressions, Rudi travels back to Germany and meets a daughter of concentration camp survivors (Sophia Metcalf). The play unfolds in an alternating series of monologues given by Rudi and more traditional dialogues.
While the transitions between the monologues and scenes are fantastic in their fluidity, the script suffers from a lack of subtext or restraint, spending too much of the monologues with exposition that could have been delivered in a less obvious way. The play seems to use its subject matter as an easy shortcut to provoke an emotional response, rather than letting it flow naturally from the characters. The production also seems to be trying its darndest to be edgy, as evidenced by a scene of homosexual fellatio next to a picture of Hitler, or another where one character proposes to another in the parking lot of Auschwitz. The production seems content to coast on the symbolic weight that such images bring without the specificity needed to warrant their inclusion.
Since the material is so overwrought and intense, all of the emotional heavy lifting of the play falls on the actors. Ultimately, this is too big a burden for the cast to bear, and the acting mostly oscillates between too much and too little. Generally, the performances are delivered in a distractingly mannered cadence, though each actor gets at least one scene where they knock it out of the park. Scotti-Goetz is at her best when she lets small parts of the character’s vulnerability slip through, but largely neglects to believably sell her character’s inner turmoil or anger at his father. Metcalf is the clear standout of the production—she brings a nervous physicality to the role that makes her character almost instantly sympathetic, and delivers her lines with the gravitas needed to fully express her character’s conflicting feelings.
The stage is surprisingly bare, with an aesthetic that could charitably be called minimalist, perhaps by necessity because it has to serve as the setting for three or four different countries. It serves its purpose for the most part. The same goes for any sound design–with one notable exception, it’s entirely absent, and when it is does play a role, it sounds like it was played from a sound effects board.
The lighting is the most consistently impressive element of the production, greatly aiding the transitions from monologue to dialogue. The monologues are cast in yellow-blue pall, giving Rudi’s confessions a tone of eerie reflection. The dialogues are more versatile, with orange glowing representing the sunniness of Paraguay, and a breathtaking scene later on, where two characters share an intimate moment under a soft yellow light.
Overall, East of Berlin has some cogent points to make about legacy and how it can be corrupted and influenced by evil; however, those are mostly overshadowed by the play’s attempt to tease a narrative out of what should have been more meditative reflection. Adapting such poor source material would be difficult for even the most experienced theatre troupe, so it’s understandable that this production wasn’t able to overcome it, despite having a few elements that made it worthwhile.
East of Berlin runs from Jan. 20 to 23, 8 p.m. every night at Players’ Theatre (3480 Rue McTavish). Tickets are $6 for students, $10 general admission. Email [email protected] for reservations.