The English language premiere of German playwright Maria Milisavljevic’s Abyss is currently showing at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. I entered the theatre unsure of what to expect and I left with the realization there was no anticipating a play quite like that because I’m not sure there is another play like that. Abyss is a dark, poetic, lyrical thriller, centered on a tight-knit group of friends trying to find out what happened to their missing comrade, Karla Richter.
The play opens on a rainy night with three friends waiting for Karla to come back from the store with cheese for their pizza. After an hour Karla’s boyfriend, Vlado (played by Gord Rand) calls her cellphone. There is no answer. Soon after, he disappears into the rain, only to return later, alone. At this point, the narrator (played by Cara Pifko) tries to question Vlado. He offers no information, more surly and distant than ever. “He just needs sleep”, the narrator- who is never referred to by name, just as “I”- reassures herself. “I understand him”, she continues, in a sort of dreamy tone.
Throughout the play the narrator considers the last moments Karla spent in the apartment, before disappearing into the rain. The missing girl had drawn a heart on her red rubber boots, paused with a smile, and had turned to dart out the door, with “a hint of a pirouette.” These last moments gain meaning each time the narrator reflects on them. The narrator’s character is the perfect example of how in the midst of tragedy people often cling to the normalcy of regular, day-to-day life. The ease with which she seems to slip away from the reality of Karla’s disappearance is a useful character trait because it tempts the audience with the idea that the narrator herself is responsible for the missing girl.
Vlado’s character also serves as a catalyst for the audience’s suspicion. He’s dark and secretive, which combined with his violent, tragic past in Croatia, makes him a volatile, hard-to-read character. However, it is hard to tell whether I found his voice distracting, almost feigned sounding because of an attempt at a faint Croatian accent, or because of his style of line delivery. Regardless, his acting comes across better when he plays the character Jan, the narrator’s tender, sweet lover.
Finally, there is Sophia, the narrator’s sister, played by Sarah Sherman. Sophia organizes the search for Karla and continues to be the driving force in that search throughout the play. Sherman is an extremely dynamic actress. She plays multiple characters in the play, including a young Russian woman. Despite an ever-so-slightly inconsistent Russian accent, she is convincing. As the play progresses Sophia becomes increasingly frustrated at her sister’s lack of willingness to help organize the search, along with her relationship with Vlado, which at times seems to take precedence over finding Karla. The romance between Vlado and the narrator appears to come out of thin air, but- without revealing too much- it becomes clear that the romance has its roots in a history much more complex than just seeking mutual romantic solace in tragedy. Ultimately, Sherman’s acting is a beacon of visceral sincerity, compared to the slightly calculated-feeling style of her cast mates’ acting. Sherman doesn’t sound like an actor playing a character, she sounds like the character, Sophia.
Abyss is a play rooted in minimalism, but it somehow doesn’t leave you feeling remotely deprived. In fact, there were parts I could have done without, such as Vlado’s character frequently reciting verses from the poem Nis Randers, which I found melodramatic and almost jarring. There are no sets or props in Abyss, only the actors, on a small black platform. Perhaps the most note-worthy aspect of the play is the fact that the three actors hold each others’ hands throughout the entire play, only breaking physical contact for brief moments. Their contact shows the overwhelming intimacy of the friend-group, along with how a tragedy like this inextricably links people together in their suffering and attempts to find make sense of tragedy. The variation in the actors’ choreography is extremely effective in conveying different moods. At times the friends hold each other’s hands tautly, pulling against each other, indicating tension. At one point Jan is linked to the narrator only by a simple, loose pinkie-link, which beautifully expresses the nature of their relationship.
One of the play’s biggest strengths is the imagery. Milisavljevic’s writing evokes the settings she is describing beautifully. There’s the scene where the friends visit the Russian quarter, and describe seeing “old eyes, young eyes, eyes waiting for something”. Or the scene where the narrator repeatedly speaks about floating through the water, at the edge of a reef, watching sunlight filter in through a glittering blue. Milisavljevic’s writing, coupled with the exquisitely-executed moments where warm, orangey lights filters over the narrator, transporting her (and the audience) to another time and place, paints a vivid picture of everything the audience doesn’t see, but leaves feeling they truly did.
By: Justine Ponomareff