The bang of the gunshot echoes through the PCL Studio Theatre and the lights rise on a teenager shot in the pelvis. The clock hanging at the eastern end of the alley stage starts counting down. These are the final 59 minutes of Peter Fechter’s life, brought to life by Bradley Doré (Peter) and Cardiac Theatre, in their production of Jordan Tannahill’s Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes.
18-year-old Peter Fechter was one of the first people to die attempting to cross over the Berlin Wall from East to West Germany in 1962. Peter and his friend Helmut Kulbeik jumped from a window into the “death-strip”, ran across it and attempted to climb over the barbed-wire-topped wall, where he was shot. Helmut made it over the wall unscathed while Peter screamed for help for approximately an hour until he bled to death from the gunshot wound to his pelvis.
With exactly 59 minutes left to live, Peter tries to come to terms with the reasons why he tried to cross into West Berlin. Peter takes us back through the moments contributing to his decision to join Helmut in attempting to cross the Berlin Wall. Ultimately, Peter concludes that the decision to attempt to cross over stems from love and the chance to gain the freedom to read, watch, and talk about whatever he wants.
A blend of youthful wonder and frenetic thought, Bradley Doré’s portrayal of Peter created an empathetic connection to the character. As he paces up and down the stage, I was alternately swept away by the wonder with which he looks back on his life and the urgency that he tells his stories with. Starting at 59 minutes at the top of the show, the clock on stage doesn’t let either Bradley or the audience forget we’re marching closer to the end of Peter’s life with every passing second.
Knowing a clock on stage would be counting down the 59 minutes of the play, I tried to anticipate how that would affect my interpretation of the performance before seeing Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes. Despite being a unique and interesting experiment, I worried it might make the show feel robotic and prevent me from immersing myself in the world of the play. I was both right and wrong in thinking that. In some ways having the clock on stage emphasised Peter’s humanity. After all, what is more human than the knowledge that one’s life is quickly coming to an end?
However, Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes is precisely timed, to the point where Peter notes several times how much time has passed since he’s been shot. I found the references to the clock and the temptation to check it didn’t allow me to be fully absorbed in the world of the play. Whether it was my own fault for being distracted by the timer or whether more rehearsal time could have been spent digging into the character, I found I didn’t always follow the intention of some of the lines. I’ve learnt over the years that pauses or beats in a play communicate so much, but this space seemed to be lacking in this production. Unable to sit with what Peter was saying, I couldn’t follow the deeper meaning of all of Peter’s the tangents as he searches for his reason for taking the risk that led to his death. I appreciate the dramatic point of the timed element of the play and love it as an experiment, but it didn’t work for me.
The on-stage timer aside, I enjoyed the rest of the staging of Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes. In terms of set design, Stephanie Bahniuk’s representation of the barbed wire that topped the Berlin Wall cuts the alley stage in two. Caught amongst the barbed wire are books and radios representing freedom of though that I imagine loved ones trying to throw over to their family in East Berlin. The items caught in the barbed wire are also all mentioned throughout the play – it’s kind of fun to hear an item mentioned in the play and look up to see it in the barbed wire.
While this was *technically* a one-person show, Mischa Hlebnicov’s sound design turned it into a four-person show through the strategic placement of speakers on stage. As Peter relives memories of his loved ones, the recording of each actor’s voice sounds through only one speaker, creating directional sound and an awesome way for Bradley to interact with the direction the sound is coming from. Lending their voices to Peter’s mother and father, and Helmut respectively are Michele Fleiger, Doug Mertz, and Morgan Grau. I haven’t seen this type of sound design in other productions and think it’s a smart way to make use of recordings.
Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes was another ambitious project for Cardiac Theatre to take on. The show is worth seeing for the theatrical experiments it features alone, to say nothing of the moving story of an 18-year-old who risked everything for love and freedom and the chance to see the Edmonton première of Jordan Tannahill’s work. The experiments Cardiac’s Artistic Producers Harley Morison and Jessica Glover take on in this production make me excited to see more of their work as they continue to grow.
PS – for an alternative perspective on Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes, check out John’s post about the play over at Behind the Hedge.