Cardiac Theatre’s Production of “Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes”

schweift der Blick;
streicht das Schiff.
Frisch weht der Wind
der Heimat zu . . .

— Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde

What a wonderful opportunity it is to see Jordan Tannahill’s Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes on stage five short blocks from home! Cardiac Theatre’s production did not disappoint, even on the first-night-preview-shakedown-cruise of a terribly powerful and difficultly precisely timed script.

I’ve written before of Peter Fechter when discussing Tannahill’s Governor General’s Award-winning three solo play collection Age of Minority. I was excited to see that Cardiac Theatre offered for sale copies of Age of Minority after the show. For literally decades I’ve wished that Edmonton theatres would make available copies of the plays they stage to their patrons. I overheard one theatre-goer this evening quite anxiously asking to buy a copy of Age of Minority. It might be a thought for theatre companies to include the cost of a dozen copies of their plays when they put together their grant applications.

But, enough about my hopes and dreams . . .

I immediately noticed that Director Harley Morison had opted for something akin to the original workshopped staging of the play, as playwright Tannahill describes:

The performer traversed the physical space of his memory onstage and would then be thrown back into the excruciating present of the Death Strip. The audience was in alley configuration (i.e., on either side of the performer), mirroring the ‘east/west/ spectatorship along the wall.

Age of Minority, p. 64

Barbed wire hangs above the stage, shoes, books, a telephone, and a perhaps anachronistic pyrex coffee pot snagged in the barbs. Apart from that hanging symbol of division, the set is bare. A chair. Four spot lights on the floor, angled upward.

I’m not certain that this staging is better than the one Tannahill chose for his self-performed premier of the play in Berlin. I was not there. I can only imagine. But imagining Tannahill standing still and alone, a spotlight on his face, as he performs his play, immobile like the wounded and paralyzed Peter Fechter, I can’t help but feel I someday want to see that staging of Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes.

Don’t get me wrong: Bradley Doré, even in this preview, gave a wonderful performance. I felt it was a little shaky at the beginning, but he hit his stride almost immediately. And, who am I — I who forgot a line in Sunday Costs Five Pesos and had to be bailed out by my Bertha at the age of eleven — who am I to criticize a young professional who stumbled once or twice in a preview but still managed to nail the fifty-nine minute deadline?

Have I mentioned the timing? It was impeccable.

But wait! “What is this play?” I hear you asking.

Well, this play, Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes, is a one-minute-less-than-one-hour one-act one -man show based on the short life and excruciatingly long death of Peter Fechter, an eighteen year old German fellow who, with his friend tried to escape East Berlin in 1962. Tannahill exercises a great amount of poetic license with the historical events, but he has made the narrative-construction, the meaning-finding of the dying Fechter powerfully believable. And Doré rises to the challenge of bringing Tannahill’s words to life.

A personal note: I can’t help but think that my response to a play about an eighteen year old who died in 1962 when I was not yet one year old will be different from both the twenty-something playwright and the twenty-something actor. They don’t remember the Berlin Wall! They don’t remember the Cold War! They don’t hear Bowie’s ‘heroes’ the way I do. They don’t hear Bowie’s “Where Are We now?” from his penultimate album the way I do. But then, when I was twenty-something, I didn’t hear ‘heroes’ the way I do now. And when I was twenty-something, I wrote a little play that I’m only coming to understand today, in my dotage. Jordan Tannahill is writing powerful stuff that will last. And Bradley Doré has brought it to life.

My friend decided to sit this play out, feeling that the subject matter was a little too intense. Yes, it is intense, and painful. But I couldn’t help but think as I tried to explain to her afterward that, in fact, there is something uplifting in the narrative Fechter constructs, in the life he creates, in those fifty-nine minutes at the wall, and in the Pieta-like image of him being lifted by the East German Border guard as the clock, Peter’s clock, ticks down to zero.

Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes runs until January 22, 2017 at the PCL Studio Theatre in the ATB Arts Barns in Old Strathcona. Tickets may be had at the Fringe Theatre Adventures Box Office.

And please read Jenna Marynowski’s behind the scenes interview piece,  “Searching for the reason behind the risk in Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes” and her review, Theatrical experiments abound in Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes.   Jenna’s blog, After the House Lights, is one of the best things for Edmonton’s theatre world!

On “Age of Minority” by Jordan Tannahill

I was an appropriate coincidence that I read Jordan Tannahill’s 2014 Governor General’s Award-winning trilogy of one act plays just as Alberta’s absurd Gay Straight Alliance “debate” reached it’s status quo hiatus.  Tannahill’s Age of Minority, consisting of Get Yourself Home, Skyler James, rihannaboi95, and Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes, present, as Tannahil writes in his Preface,

Three young people backed up against walls, metaphorically and literally, who risk everything for a chance to love and be loved. And all three, to some extent, are queer.  Beyond a merely sexual understanding of the word, they refuse the norms they are confronted with.  They are sublime outcasts.

The timing of my reading could not have been better.

I’ll confess a personal prejudice to begin.  This prejudice was unfortunately triggered when I flipped to the biography of Tannahill a the back of the book and read:

Jordan creates performances exploring the lives of diverse Torontonians.

And I thought “Oh, Lord! Not Toronto!”

I was unjust.  Tannahill is, as I so recommend to Edmonton’s arts community, making his own home the universal.  These plays are not about Toronto, they are about human experience.  I apologized for my anti-Toronto bigotry.

Now, to the brilliant plays.

As Tannahill says, these three plays are about young people who “to some extent, are queer.”

Skylar James is clearly — well, as clearly as anything in life is clear — lesbian. Get Yourself Home, Skyler James was developed for performance in school classrooms, for small audiences of students.  The cast of one would move from class to class over the course of a week or so, performing and reperforming the play.  I expect the heroine, lesbian army deserter Skyler James, became a sort of friend to many students and the seed of an informal school-wide Gay Straight Alliance.

rihannaboi95 is — well, what is he?  Is he gay?  He is certainly attracted to one man. Is he trans? Truth is ambiguity.  The play rihannaboi95 is a ground-breaking production.  The play was produced live on YouTube, not on stage.  The result is something more real-life than any theatre we normally experience.  rhiannaboi95 is a young man from an immigrant family who has a talent for dance and an obsession with pop star Rhianna.  But, because of his family and their culture, he can only be himself in secret YouTube videos.  But, of course, nothing on YouTube is secret, and an old-fashioned family isn’t the only danger for a “different” young man.

And Peter Fechter, the tragically failed escapee from East Berlin, the boy most literally Against The Wall, violently never allowed to become himself, whatever self that might have been.  We’ll never know what his relationship to Helmut would have been.  And that perpetual ignorance is the entire point.  This is a life snuffed out before its blossoming by the violence of dominant, unprotecting society.  Peter Fechter died, in actual historical fact, for the sins we continue to commit each day against the most vulnerable in our societies.

While Get Yourself Home Skyler James and rhiannaboi95 are true monodramas, with only a single character, a single voice on “stage”, Peter Fechter 59 Minutes has a few extra disembodied voices. But these voices are counterpoints and grace notes to Peter Fechter’s fifty-nine minute threnody to himself as he lies against the Berlin Wall, bleeding to death from a pelvic gunshot wound.  With this study of a young victim of Cold War stupid evil, Tannahill cries out for understanding and tolerance of difference.

The message of Age of Minority is not just about the LBGTQ “community”.  None of Tannahill’s three characters are part of such a community.  They are solitary, without support.  The emphasis is not on sexuality.  These plays are not about LBGTQ life in Toronto, Canada. They are about individuality, about types of individuality which are not accepted by society, which society tries to wipe out, whether that society is the military, school, family, Communist East Berlin, or YouTube.  We, the audience, come to not simply accept Tannahill’s characters, but to be charmed by them.  We like — perhaps love — them, not in spite of who they are, but because of who they are.  Such is the power of the one act monodrama in Jordan Tannahill’s startlingly creative hands.

Age of Minority is drama of great importance and Jordan Tannahill, still in his twenties, will certainly continue to be a leading voice in theatre for years to come.

Age of Minority is published by Playwrights Canada Press.