Theatre 4.669’s Un-Countried, a tale of two East German border guards working a fateful shift and its aftermath, has a serendipitous immediacy in spite of its somewhat conservative dramatic style.
Un-Countried, written by Stéphanie Turple, starts off in a cramped East German border office, with two contrasting personalities working the checkpoint: a young and idealistic recruit on his first day, and a cantankerous older veteran whose idealism has long been superseded by an interest in self-preservation. The friction between their two viewpoints manifests itself in amusing, Pinter-y conversation, but soon their tension is broken off by the growing crowd demanding the gate to West Berlin be opened (did I mention this takes place in 1989?), and suddenly they must choose the action they take. 6 months later they meet in a public park and discuss the fallout of their actions, the state (mental and political) in which they now find themselves, and anxieties about the future, particularly on the part of the younger man. The older man’s cynicism, formerly a dangerous trait that could get him killed, has turned out to be the thing that allowed him to survive the GDR (German Democratic Republic, or communist East Germany), and the Nazi regime before it.
Un-Countried was already confirmed as part of the undercurrents line-up before the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president; the play’s (unfortunate?) relevance to current events is as serendipitous as it is unsettling. Regardless of partisan affiliations (has the autocratic regime just ended or is it just starting?), the effacing of personal identity during political turmoil and the cynicism that ultimately sets in are certainly applicable to the current political climate.
The acting is wonderful, with excellent chemistry between Michael Hanrahan as the older man and Jon Dickey as the younger. Hanrahan’s facial expressions speak volumes to the inner disillusionment of his character and contrast beautifully with Dickey’s slowly deflating youthful verve. There are some issues with text and style, but these are mostly editorial concerns: the second half, in the park, feels overly long and would perhaps work better as an epilogue rather than a second act; the occasional references to the younger man’s possible homosexuality could be interesting character development (particularly if the GDR had oppressive policies towards LGBT persons), but the throwaway nature of these references in the current iteration suggests that they have more to do with macho posturing on the older man’s part.
Stylistically, Un-Countried is absolutely a work of literary and dramatic realism. The set for the first half, the cramped border-crossing booth, is extremely close to the audience, and yet the blocking is still very frontal, with both performers often facing the audience (who are framed as the crowd that eventually grows outside) even before the crowd gathers when there’s nothing for them to see. By contrast the public park set for the second half takes up nearly the whole stage, emphasized by Dickey’s anxious pacing. The pacing doesn’t seem wholly necessary – it would be far more captivating to watch him deal with the character’s anxiety while rooted to one spot – but it does drive home the simple spatial metaphor.
A text-based piece of historical realism seems like an odd choice for undercurrents, who are supposed to be presenting ‘theatre below the mainstream’, but I would argue that the unexpected way that real life has met this play allows for an exception in this case. Presenting this play in either a more naturalistic style or an abstract one like expressionism would be a bit too on the nose, since the friction between different idealistic factions and the cynics outside of them is already a daily news feature. The subtlety of realism works to Un-Countried’s advantage. Would I take this view had the U.S. election gone differently? Maybe, but we’ll never know.
A Theatre 4.669 production
Written by Stéphanie Turple
Directed by Kevin Orr
Stage Managed by Laurie Shannon
Costumes by Vanessa Imeson
Set Design by John Doucet
Sound Design by Thomas Sinou
Performed by Michael Hanrahan and Jon Dickey
Running time: 60 minutes
In Arts Court Theatre
Saturday 11 February 3:00pm
Thursday 16 February 9:00pm
Saturday 18 February 7:00pm