BWW Review: A Poignant Search for Family in Andrea Stolowitz's Uber-Meta BERLIN DIARY at Hand2Mouth
It's one thing to write a play about writing the play you're writing. It's another thing entirely to write a play about writing the play you're writing featuring two characters who are both you and who spend most of their time talking to each other. It all sounds pretty abstract. But, in Andrea Stolowitz's BERLIN DIARY, currently being presented by Hand2Mouth in association with CoHo Productions, that uber-meta structure results in a thoughtful and engrossing meditation on family.
The basis for the play is the diary of Ms. Stolowitz's great-grandfather, who escaped Germany in 1939 and kept the journal as a gift for his descendents. In reading the journal, which contains plenty of silly poems and anecdotes, but nothing about what was happening to the Jewish people in Germany or her great-grandfather's escape, Ms. Stolowitz began to wonder what really happened to her family.
In particular, she wondered why -- though the diary mentioned weekly gatherings and parties with hundreds of relatives -- there simply weren't many Stolowitzes around and the ones who were around didn't particularly get along. She spent eight months in Berlin researching her family history, talking to the relatives she knew, and digging through archives in attempt to piece together her family history, a process that culminated in BERLIN DIARY, a play that chronicles the journey.
The device Ms. Stolowitz uses for the play is the "bifurcated narrator," which means two actors -- in this case, Damon Kupper and Erin Leddy -- playing the same role -- here, the role of Andrea. To be honest, it took some time for me to get used to it, especially during the first half, I sometimes struggled to follow when the actors were playing Andrea and when they'd shifted to the handful of other characters who make an appearance. I wondered why one of the Andreas was played by a man and if it might have been more effective, if exhausting for the performer, as a one-woman show.
But by the second half, something changed -- maybe I got more comfortable, maybe the performers did, or maybe it was a bit of both -- and all of a sudden the bifurcated narrator didn't seem so strange. In fact, it seemed like the only way this story could have been told, representing the fragmented nature of Ms. Stolowitz's family and perhaps her psyche as she sought to understand the mystery of her ancestors. The device that held me at arm's length in the first half drew me in completely in the second, which seemed to perfectly mirror the arc of Ms. Stolowitz's experience with her family history as the play unfolded. The effect was supported by excellent performances by Mr. Kupper and Ms. Leddy.
Overall, I very much enjoyed this BERLIN DIARY. It's especially topical now as refugees around the world are fleeing their homes. Will their stories, too, be lost?
BERLIN DIARY runs through April 30 at CoHo Theatre. More info and tickets here.
On a side note, Ms. Stolowitz was recently named the Lacroute Playwright-in-Residence at Artists Repertory Theatre, where she has a commission for a new play. I'm pretty excited to see the results!
Photo credit: Owen Carey