Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ambiguity or the Lack Thereof

Please note :: This blog post will contain spoilers for the ending of East of Berlin. If you haven't seen the play and don't want to know how it ends, stop reading now.

I went and saw East of Berlin tonight. It is produced by Tarragon Theatre, presented by Touchstone Theatre, performing at the Firehall Arts Centre as a part of the Chutzpah Festival.

The Touchstone Theatre website describes it like this:

Rudi has grown up in Paraguay, blissfully ignorant of his father’s past. When he discovers the awful truth, he tries to atone for his father’s appalling acts. Can love heal what history has so brutally torn asunder? Or will the horrors of the past haunt him forever? East of Berlin is a stirring and absolutely essential meditation on the psychological legacy of the Holocaust, brought to life in a stunning production from one of Canada’s most respected and consistently innovative theatres.

The show is very strong. The script is well crafted. The lead actor gives a mannered, but solid performance. The lighting design is haunting. The directing was to the point. The actress was fascinating to watch. The sound design had only one troubling choice (the use of "One is the Loneliest Number" both underscoring a sex scene and repeated as curtain call). I wasn't thrilled with the secondary actor (I found him a bit robotic), but I was still ready to come home and write about how strong the show was until the final scene.

When Rudi, who has returned home to face his father, pulls out a gun, my first thought was "Oh god, please don't go the route of the cliche and have him commit suicide." Then he started talking as though he was going to kill his father and I thought "please have it end with him just walking through the door, the sound of it slamming and the blackout. Let us discuss among ourselves what happens. Make us think." But they didn't. And in the plays final moment, stagier than any other point, Rudi opens the door and puts the gun to his head & we went to black.

I felt ripped off. I wanted the ambiguity. The ambiguity would have left me questioning just what his grief and guilt had driven him to, or whether he was capable of forgiving himself & his father. Instead I was told exactly how things were and it didn't work for me.

I love ambiguity in theatre. I love it when I can walk out the door and talk to the person who I've seen the show with and we each have a different interpretation of what happened in the end. That was my experience after reading Doubt by John Patrick Shanley. A couple of friends had also read it and we each had different interpretations of what had happened - whether or not Father Flynn was guilty (an experience that was unfortunately NOT repeated at the Arts' Club production in fall). A lot of my favourite plays are ones where you leave uncertain & asking questions.

After all, if theatre doesn't exist to ask questions of you and force you to ask them of yourself, what good is it?

6 comments: said...

I totally agree with this sentiment Lois. I know this is grounds for much debate, but in my opinion the nature of the theatrical form - the need for the audience to complete the act - is best respected by not delivering answers to all the questions posed and leaving the last act to be completed by us over drinks after the show.

Perhaps it is the influence of film that's affected theatre endings?

Kate said...

And of course a dollop of ambiguity creates its own tension within my engagement with the play ... and tension is a hallmark of good drama. QED.

But I know people who hate open endings and just love everything tied up with a neat bow. Wishful thinking, eh?

Nick Keenan said...

You need to read this:

SMLois said...

Nick - Thanks for the link. The author writes:

"Ambiguity should allow multiplicity of meaning, create a crowd rather than a vacuum. It should be hung upon something significant, if the point is minor but not “worth specifying,” it is probably not worth being in there in the first place."

And that is what I think was missing from the ending of East of Berlin. They gave you an answer (staged inconsistently with the rest of the play) and it was a moment that would have been much more significant if it had been more ambiguous.

Twitter user @avibryant's proposed new ending (via @PiTheatre) for East of Berlin: Rudi tells dad he's turned him in, lays gun on dad's desk...cut to black. Even that would have created a much more interesting ending (though as I've argued with them would have required either complete redirector or the addition of a character).

lindsay said...

Absolutely. Why do we need to know if the gun went off? Why can't we decide for ourselves? Leaving the end open creates a wonderful opportunity to have the audience involved with the show. They write their own ending.

Having said that, it is a tricky line. You don't want so many questions that the audience removes themselves from the play and starts asking why the director did this, or why the writer did that. But questions that keep the audience in the world of the play are so wonderful.

Ooooh I love the visual of ambiguity creating a crowd not a vacuum. That's lovely.

SMLois said...

To share a dissenting voice, one of our local theatre critics wrote this about the ending of the play:

"In spite of its formulaic development, Moskovitch nonetheless caps the show with a shocking and unexpected ending that ultimately rescues the play from its faults."

So he thought that the ending saved the play. I also spoke today with the AD for my company who saw the show and said that he didn't find the ending distracting one way or another. It appears to be entirely subjective.

To read the whole review, click here: