Everyone has shameful secrets, but some are so appalling people turn their lives upside down to keep them hidden.
East of Berlin, a play written by Hannah Moscovitch and directed by Joel Beddows, depicts the emotional unravelling of Rudi, the son of a former Nazi SS doctor. At the tender age of 17, he finds out his father conducted medical experiments on Jews at Auschwitz during the final years of the Second World War — something everyone in his small German ex-pat community seems to know already.
Rudi grew up amongst war criminals in post-war Paraguay but never put two and two together. Sure, his father quoted Hitler, sent him to German language classes and insisted Rudi attend all-white schools, but the full meaning of that failed to register. When a gay classmate — with a painfully obvious crush on Rudi — accidentally reveals the truth, it leads Rudi into completely uncharted waters as he attempts to come to terms with his father’s horrific past.
The play is a complex tapestry of identity struggles covering a lot of ground: sexual orientation, religion, biological determinism, culture, homeland, parent-child dynamics, the destructive influence of shame, and the internal tug-of-war that pits family loyalties against broader moral responsibilities — with the dark wit and intelligence characteristic of Moscovitch’s work.
Simon Bradshaw (left) as Rudi and Pierre-Antoine Lafon Simard as Hermann.
The show compels right from the get-go, though a large share of the credit for that “hook” goes to set designer Ivo Valentik, whose brilliant creation really draws the eye. The rawness and verticality of the set gives a particularly foreboding feeling — an impending doom that is almost visible in his choices. The spiral staircase and slanted, teepee-like poles at centrestage loom high above the audience, casting long shadows.
Everything in the set is warped, à la Alice in Wonderland: shoddy, uneven, haphazard and asymmetrical. And yet, there’s something organized and cozy about the space. A feeling of home. The sparse sounds of a string instrument being plucked complete the atmosphere of tension and uncertainty as the audience waits for the show to begin.
A closer look reveals people lurking in the shadows. A young man sitting and reading in a nook at the edge of the stage, a young woman holed up in the corner between the stairs and the fireplace, and a figure perched halfway up the spiral staircase looking down on the scene below. The young man on the stairs sparks his flip-top lighter, staring obsessively at the flame as the lights come up, and the story begins.
Pierre-Antoine Lafon Simard gives a gripping performance as the shy, sweet and unbelievably awkward Hermann. His depiction shines all the more due to fantastic costume choices by Geneviève Couture. While the chemistry between the lead and the two supporting characters sometimes lags, there are incredibly moving moments peppered throughout the performance that make up for it. The stunning “snapshots” created when the characters freeze in tableau allow especially transformative moments in the story to linger, to great effect.
Throughout the show, the strength of the script shines through. The twists and turns in plot are challenging and heart-rending — so many decisions with impossibly steep consequences and ethics that are difficult to accommodate. The deep humanity of this story makes this production a pleasure to watch.
East of Berlin
Runs until Sun, April 8
Great Canadian Theatre Company
1233 Wellington St W