Q&A with East of Berlin director Margo Whitcomb
The Hudson Valley and Capital Region have no shortage of vibrant, thought-provoking productions to look forward to this summer, starting with Hannah Moscovitch’s East of Berlin, which makes its regional debut at Catskill’s Bridge St. Theater on May 25th. This dramatic play will surely inspire honest conversations among patrons and some reflection on the way our family histories can both define and disrupt our present lives.
East of Berlin is set in the 1960s when Rudi, a young man, has reluctantly traveled to Paraguay to confront his estranged father, a former SS doctor guilty of conducting “experiments” on Holocaust prisoners. Rudi has met and fallen in love with Jewish-American Sarah without confessing the truth of his family’s shameful past.
“The play is a genuine nail-biter, with the tension mounting higher and higher until a last-second climax as shocking as it is unexpected,” says the Bridge St. team.
The production stars Orlando Grant, who graced the same stage in last year’s The Lion in Winter and will soon begin NYU’s MFA program, and actor-singer-songwriter Kara Arena, recently seen in the Off-Broadway musical Islander. The role of student Hermann will be played by JD Scalzo, a two-time San Fransisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle nominee.
The cast is led by Vermont-based director Margo Whitcomb, who was kind enough to sit down with InPlay to discuss what audiences can expect and look forward to in East of Berlin.
Q: What drew you to this play, and Bridge St. Theater as a space?
I have a pretty long relationship with John Sowle and Steven Patterson who run Bridge St. We were colleagues in San Fransisco a couple of decades ago. Both they and I have separately migrated to the East Coast, and since then, I’ve directed Steven as an actor and had a wonderful time.
We were always trying to find a way for me to get down to Bridge St. again. The first time we were able to line things up was last year when I did the U.S. premiere of Hannah Moscovitch’s Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes. That’s when I discovered her writing. I thought she had an incredible capacity in that play to take a subject and a theme that we think we all know and reframe it. Spin it in an entirely different way that allows us to see the same story — in that case, an older professor’s intimate relationship with a young student — from a new perspective.
Just like Sexual Misconduct, I read East of Berlin and immediately said yes. This is the play that blew open her career, which is now off the charts. In addition to being a prolific playwright and continuing to work internationally, she just premiered a new play at the Tarragon Theater in Toronto called Post-Democracy. In addition to that, she’s the lead writer and executive producer of the incredibly popular television series Interview With A Vampire. So she’s straddling all worlds.
Q: What makes this play different for you and for audiences?
No discredit to the enduring, horrific, and extraordinary story of Holocaust survivors — and they too have strong representation in this play — but what Hannah has done is center the intergenerational trauma that visits those who are spawned from the perpetrators.
It’s sort of a post-WWII tragedy that looks at historical and intergenerational trauma that visits upon the child of an SS doctor. He discovers the story as an adolescent, almost by accident, and it shatters his life and disrupts everything. It’s really about the young man trying to come to terms with this history, and the shadow side of secrecy.
In America today, in the epicenter of the culture wars, where books are being banned and the teaching of history is being interrogated and silenced, all because factions of our country cannot confront the truth — and if you can’t confront the truth, you can’t confront reconciliation — it’s interesting because although it takes place between 1960 and 1970, it speaks very much to the prevalent conversation we’re having about racialized, historical, intergenerational trauma.
Q: This work also sounds like it will be pretty emotional, would you agree?
Yes, I do. So much so that it’s quite shocking. But you know, it’s artfully done. One of the things that Hannah Moscovitch does is she’s able to examine almost in close-up, almost under a microscope, these incredibly gnarly, complex, difficult themes. But with tremendous compassion, humanity, and a variety of perspectives. I think as an audience member, you come to identify with the missteps that are taken and the struggle that this young man and his companion take. You identify with the seduction of secrecy of that which is irreconcilable from one’s past personally and culturally, and the cost of that secrecy.
Q: So to call it a Holocaust play is actually missing so much, considering all the different themes this work delves into.
Yes. And that’s how Hannah came to write it. She came to notice that she, who is Jewish, was researching her own family and had the same thought. Like, OK, what about what happened to the kids of the perpetrators? In my research, which has been illuminating and horrifying, I’ve learned no one could really talk about the Holocaust until the 1970s. It took an entirely new generation even to be able to speak of it. So it didn’t enter into common discourse until then, and that’s when this play is over.
Q: What do you think of the Hudson Valley as a space for the arts?
I know it pretty well because in another chapter of my life, I lived in Poughkeepsie, and was the founding artistic director of a theater called Half Moon Theater.
I’ve certainly known that part of the Hudson Valley to have a real appetite for muscular plays, complex ideas, and rich language. Even though this play deals with these big, gnarly subjects that seem kind of lofty, at the end of the day it’s really kind of a family tragedy. It’s not that far from more American classics like Death of a Salesman. This play is very accessible — you don’t have to have any prior knowledge of anything or any predisposition.
I love what they’re doing at Bridge St. because they’re good at multidisciplinary offerings. So on any given night, you’re likely to see anything from a drag cabaret to a film to a dance concert to a music concert to a play that could be ridiculous and entertaining, and by contrast quite thoughtful and deep. They’ve capitalized on the venue, making full use of the cabaret space and their theater.
Q: What can audiences expect from East of Berlin?
I think they can expect extraordinary actors, all of which are New York-based, some we have a relationship with, some not. All are highly skilled and very eager and thrilled to bring this piece to Catskill.
They can expect a very smart and tight script. It’s 80 minutes, no intermission. It’s a bit of a thriller. It’s kind of a ride. You get on the train and it just goes hurtling down the tracks and takes you to very unexpected places.
East of Berlin is running from May 25th to June 4th at Catskill’s Bridge St. Theater. Learn more about the show and buy your tickets at their website.