Reviewed October 18 by Natasha Lomonossoff
TotoToo Theatre’s production of Bent at the Gladstone was a laudable effort, despite a few inconsistencies that detracted from its overall impact. Director Josh Kemp’s take on Martin Sherman’s historically significant play was most successful in establishing the dark events and atmosphere that foreground it: that is, the persecution of gays in Nazi Germany. Bringing this lesser known evil to light, the play focuses on an openly gay Berliner named Max who, along with his partner Rudy, are forced to flee the city after two Nazi guards come to their apartment with an arrest warrant for a companion they picked up at a club just the previous night. The pair embark on a fruitless journey all throughout the country to escape, as they are eventually caught and placed on a train heading towards Dachau. Unimaginable brutality and suffering only follows from there.
As Max, Phillip Merriman gives a performance that fluctuates between two extremes of unconvincing to moving. In his conversations with Rudy (Aaron Mellway) and their companion Wolf (Sean Brennan) at the beginning of the play, he seems a bit disinterested and passive compared to the other two. This apparent lack of interest continues until he and Rudy were on the train to the camp, when Merriman finally gives a true sense of the effect that the closing in of the Nazis has on him. It is Max’s later scenes with a fellow gay prisoner in the camp named Horst (Mike Rogoff), however, in which he shines the most. In his interactions with the latter, Merriman displays genuine emotion both through his facial expressions and manner of speaking with this new-found kindred spirit. Mellway, by comparison, gives a thoroughly convincing performance as Rudy, capturing his campy spirit at the beginning (albeit in a way that risks being stereotypical) as well as the fear and despair brought upon him from being forced to go on the road. Rogoff is initially very believable as Horst, particularly when he expresses disgust at Max’s obtaining of a yellow star over a more loathed pink triangle (which was the actual identifier for gays during the Nazi period). As Horst’s scenes with Max progress, however, he becomes more muted in comparison to his increasingly animated co-star. The most effective performances, most ironically perhaps, come from the one of the Nazi guards (Lucus Kenny) and the Captain present at the camp (John Collins). Both actors are able to provide a presence that is menacing yet not overly pronounced, simply through their calm and collected posture which suggests that they are the ones in control.
Overall, the strength of this production of Bent lies more in its recreation of an oppressive time period that it recreates rather than in the particular story of its main characters. While the individual stories that play out on stage are undeniably tragic, the most significant takeaway from this production is the chilling reminder that everything one holds dear can be snatched away from them by virtue of simply being different.