Bent : excellent performances in this ground-breaking play

Reviewed by Iris Winston


Bent photo Maria Vartanova

 

Bent by  Martin Sherman, directed by  Josh Kemp. a TotoToo Theatre Production

Arbeit macht frei (Work sets you free.)

The horrible irony of the slogan above the gates of  Dachau  and other concentration camps in Nazi Germany where millions died deepens with the demonstration of the futility of the type of forced labour imposed on the two prisoners at the centre of Martin Sherman’s 1979 award-winning drama Bent.

For 12 hours each day, they must move rocks from one pile to another and then move them back again, all the time under threat of death from an armed guard.  It is clear that the most likely escape from the mind-numbing and pointless repetition is death. But, along the way, Sherman aims to show that the human spirit and love survive in the face of cruelty and subjugation.

Yet, there is very little of the hero in Max, the main character in Bent. It is his behaviour after a night of debauchery fueled by cocaine and alcohol that leads the Nazi storm troopers to him and his young lover, Rudy. Although he makes one effort on the Night of the Long Knives (June 30, 1934) to escape Nazi persecution with Rudy, he eventually betrays him. Then, believing that Jews will be treated better than homosexuals, he attempts to prove his heterosexuality with a dead pre-teen girl and wears the yellow star given to Jewish prisoners on his prison garb rather than the pink triangle reserved for gay men. Meanwhile, determined to survive, he continues to attempt to work unsavoury deals with his captors.

Ironically, it is when he reaches out to help his new love, Horst, and is finally true to himself that survival pales in comparison to honesty.

The play is harrowing to watch because it is a constant reminder of dehumanizing cruelty. It has also always been controversial because the playwright (an openly gay Jew) seems to devalue the plight of the six million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis. (In addition to Jews and homosexuals, the Nazis targeted Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, people who were mentally handicapped, intellectuals, vagrants, prostitutes, Freemasons and politicians. And on the Night of the Long Knives, Adolf Hitler ordered a purge of the Nazi elite to cement his control.)

As directed by Josh Kemp, the greatest strength of the TotoToo Theatre production of Bent is in the outstanding performances by Phillip Merriman and Mike Rogoff as the two principals, Max and Horst and in John Collins’ carefully nuanced dual cameos of Uncle Freddie and the Captain, the latter a beautiful example of understated control alive with menace. Precisely because of the horror of the content, power springs from restraint.

The weak points of the production are in the slow set changes in Act I and the lack of convincing threat from the guards. This is, in part, because of costuming glitches. Apart from the lack of punch in the armband swastikas, it is much more likely that the guards would be uniformed differently. Stormtroopers (Sturmabteilung or SA) were known as Brownshirts, The SS (Schutzstaffel) were called Blackshirts. The Gestapo (secret police) wore grey or black uniforms. All wore high boots.

I was left wondering just how much history had been studied before this very powerful play was undertaken.

However, it is impossible to see Bent without being moved, particularly when there is excellent chemistry between the two principals and they deliver such riveting characterizations.

The TotoToo Theatre production of Bent continues at the Gladstone to October 21.

 

Director: Josh Kemp

Set: David  Magladry

Lighting: Frank Donato

Sound: Bob Krukowski

Costumes: Dael Foster

 

Cast:

Max…………………………………………Phillip Merriman

Rudy………………………………………..Aaron Mellway

Wolf………………………………………..Sean Brennan

Guard……………………………………….Lucus Kenny

Guard/Kapo…………………………………Paul Washer

Greta………………………………………..George Rigby

Uncle Freddie/Captain………………………John Collins

Prisoner……………………………………..Alex Rochman

Horst……………


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