By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Maybe a voice will go through many different bodies in its life,” says the young man we meet in Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes.
It’s a haunting thought (and the more you think it the more it seeps into your bones). It works its way through the landscape of momentous historical and cultural currents; it’s what theatre does. In the case of Jordan Tannahill’s play, it gives the voice of the title character, an 18-year-old East German bricklayer, a certain expanding resonance in the ever-shrinking final 59 minutes of his life.
Peter’s youthful voice has been channelled powerfully through one actor in this cunningly written little solo play, exactly 59 minutes long. It conjures both a public and private world in remarkably vivid detail.
With Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes, one of Tannahill’s Age of Minority triptych, Edmonton’s Cardiac Theatre has brought us, for the first time, the work of this award-winning young Canadian playwright. It’s inspired by a photo-documented real-life incident: on Aug. 17, 1962, a young man is shot trying to cross the Berlin Wall to join his friend Helmut.
The play opens with an “unanswered question,” a fatal shot, and a digital onstage clock set at 59 minutes. It clicks inexorably backwards, second by second, as Peter lies dying on the Death Strip. As we discover in Harley Morison’s breathless production, starring the engaging Bradley Doré, what happens en route to zero happens entirely in Peter’s memory and his immediate sensations.
Peter can hear, in an eerie amplification, the sound of birds, the descending roots of a dandelion, the rumbling digestion of the guard who’s shot him. As the fragmented voices of his mother and father, and Helmut echo strangely in his mind, he begins to add up and assess the hitherto unsuspected connections among the people in his world. Mischa Hlebnicov’s evocative sound design is indispensable.
Impending death has given him adult superpowers, including the ability to get up from the Death Strip, move freely through his memories, look us in the eye and tell us things, — and the grown-up ability to see his parents as people, not just his mother and father.
A dimensional world is conjured — an urban regime of grim bustle, surveillance, suspicion, caution, love circumscribed. That in itself isn’t what makes the play so memorable: hey, the GDR hasn’t had much good press lo these many decades. The most impressive thing about Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes is the cunning, unobtrusive way a story emerges from the fabric of the piece. It has both the escalating revelations of a mini-thriller and the self-discovery arc of a coming-of-age narrative — all in 59 minutes. It’s an intricate theatrical achievement.
As Doré creates him in Morison’s production, Peter is a man in the making, nearly emerging, at the last possible minute, from the kid he was. Is he gay? Maybe. Probably. The character hasn’t quite figured that out yet; he hasn’t had time. It’s the best thing about a performance of charm and kid-like innocence, undercut by notes of puzzled wonder. Peter seems heartbreakingly young to be confronted with the question “was it worth it?”, those risks we take for love.
His life and death happen along a gangway, a Death Strip. We sit on either side, the east and west of Berlin, as he moves through his memory. In Stephanie Bahniuk’s striking design, it’s overhung by a long strip of coiled barbed wire, in which are snagged pairs of work boots. The room has an eerie pewter glow, with the lethal red digits of the clock glowing at one end.
And we leave, with a question that will go through many different bodies in its life.
REVIEW: Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes
Written by: Jordan Tannahill
Directed by: Harley Morison
Starring: Bradley Doré, with Michele Fleiger, Doug Mertz, Morgan Grau
Where: PCL Studio Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Through Jan. 22
Tickets: fringetheatre.ca or at the door