Most of us are well aware that heinous Nazi war criminals like Josef Mengele attempted to evade justice by fleeing — in Mengele's case, to Paraguay — and living materially comfortable lives, even finding time to celebrate Hitler's birthday. Few of us think of them as having brought their children along. But some of them did.
And at the beginning of Hannah Moscovitch's riveting and deeply affecting new play, "East of Berlin," a lanky, uncertain figure slinks onto the stage, cigarette dangling, and starts to address the audience. He is, he tells us, judiciously omitting his name, the son of one of those very Nazis, and he has private school friends of similar extraction in his little enclave of exiled Germans. It is one of those troubled school friends — we're in about 1952 — who has told our perhaps unreliable narrator a fuller truth about his seemingly ordinary dad, a man who was not just someone on the losing side of the war, but a doctor assigned to a concentration camp. An experimental doctor, you might say.
The two begin a relationship so complex and compelling, it nearly pulls you all the way out of your seat. I don't think I moved a muscle for 90 minutes.
"East of Berlin" is superbly staged by the Signal Ensemble Theatre — a small but high-quality company that operates in its own intimate space in the North Center neighborhood.
Signal is the first Chicago company to produce the work of Moscovitch, a young Canadian scribe who's been making quite a splash in Toronto and elsewhere in Canada. Ronan Marra, the skilled and unpretentious director, stages this three-actor play without a lick of scenery. Billy Fenderson (who plays Rudi), Melanie Keller (Sarah) and Tom McGrath (that school pal Hermann) just seem to float around in a sea of black: talking, touching, worrying, flailing, trying to make their way across the most poisoned of landscapes.
This is drama with guts — the whole idea of a play about a relationship between a camp survivor and the son of one of its architects of inhumanity is fraught with the kind of dangers that would scare many scribes away. But Moscovitch delves into this world with the kind of deeply rooted moral curiosity that reminds me of the work of Wallace Shawn. Although they are quite different in structure, the intensity of "East of Berlin," a play perched on the very edge of unspeakable horrors, reminds me of Shawn's "Aunt Dan and Lemon." As with that play, "East of Berlin" creates intimate relationships between a narrator and an audience, only slowly revealing its moral implications. And Moscovitch's play, which should not be missed, explores with sophistication and humanity some of the most explosive of human concerns: Do we all have the right to escape our parents' past? And are the loyalties demanded by history unassailable?
The acting here is exceptional. One scene between Fenderson's self-loathing Rudi and Keller's exquisitely vulnerable yet determined Sarah is so profoundly sad, it sits with me still. It is an intimate act interrupted by the kind of terrible questions that, when the sins of the father are so great, make even future pleasures feel immoral — or maybe transformative. I don't know. I'm not sure the play does, either.
Signal pairs "East of Berlin," which runs 90 minutes, with another Moscovitch piece, a droll and similarly resonant faux-Chekhovian dark comedy called "The Russian Play," yet further evidence of this writer's remarkable talents and, it seems, her fascination with how the Old World has shaped modern North American women. You can see why Marra wanted to do this 30-minute dessert (the cast does double-duty), and it is also simply and deftly staged, albeit with a little less subtlety. But it is not needed on the same bill.
By all means stay for "The Russian Play" — you will find yourself wanting more of this writer, anyway — but I was still stuck back in Berlin, brain throbbing.
When: Through Nov. 13
Where: Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $20 at 773-698-7389 or signalensemble.com