East of Berlin and The Russian Play at Signal Ensemble Theatre | Theater review

A pair of one-acts serves as a tantalizing Chicago calling card for Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch.
East of Berlin and The Russian Play at Signal Ensemble Theatre
Photograph: Johnny Knight East of Berlin and The Russian Play at Signal Ensemble Theatre
By Suzanne Scanlon |
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This pair of one-acts serves as young Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s introduction to Chicago. Audiences are likely to leave wanting more. Much of 2007’s East of Berlin is a monologue delivered by Rudi (Billy Fenderson), a German who grew up in Paraguay. Through a classmate, Rudi learns his father was a Nazi doctor who performed human experiments in concentration camps. We don’t meet the father; the play is about the son, a Hamlet figure who must deal with paternal legacy.

In Berlin, hoping to escape (or understand) his past, Rudi meets Sarah (Melanie Keller), the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. She too bears the weight of her parent’s history and, though the two fall in love, it’s definitely complicated. The play gains speed in these later scenes, thanks partly to the script but also to the strength of Keller’s performance. While Fenderson brings charm and grace to this challenging material, his early scenes lack necessary tension. The play takes a while to get going, but there’s a lot here to like. Ronan Marra’s direction, both simple and unsettling, highlights the cinematic, imagistic elements of the piece.

The same aesthetic pervades the much shorter The Russian Play, which premiered as part of Toronto’s SummerWorks Theatre Festival in 2006. The utterly captivating 1920s-set romance also consists largely of monologue, this time delivered by Sonya (Keller), who interrupts her narration with commentary on the despairing nature of Russian drama itself. Keller pulls this off expertly; what Moscovitch says about a young woman’s tragic life in Stalinist Russia manages to be both funny and terribly sad.

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