Reviewed by Carly Jevcak
What starts off as a booze and drug filled night turns into hell for Max as he brings home a man wanted by the Nazis, which upends his life. The opening performance of Bent by TotoToo Theatre at the Gladstone Theatre was a harrowing experience, but that says more about the content rather than the production. After being caught by the Gestapo in 1934 Berlin for being a gay man, Max is sent to the Dachau concentration camp where the only ray of sunshine is his developing secret relationship with fellow prisoner, Horst. The men try their hardest to survive under the most trying of conditions and find ways to subvert the prying eyes of the guards.
Directed by Josh Kemp, Kemp takes this play and, if only for a moment, creates a shining light that shows love is greater than hatred. The love between Max and Horst is a beacon of hope in dark contrast to the oppression and death surrounding them. Kemp gets the actors to portray so much without even being able to look at each other, and it’s powerful.
Max is played by Phillip Merriman, a proud and promiscuous man who practically lives in an intoxicated haze with a vivid imagination. After this arrest, he thinks he can “figure out” Dachau and tries to cunningly outplay it at every turn, only to be outdone by the unprecedented actions of the Nazis. Max’s acceptance of who he is and the realization that he can’t figure out the Nazis comes heartbreakingly too late with a dramatic finale.
Max has a revolving door of beaux throughout the play, including the helpless and effeminate Rudy (Aaron Mellway), the promiscuous and home wrecking Wolf (Sean Brennan), and finally the forlorn Horst (Mike Rogoff), who has seen too much cruelty and not enough kindness. He just wants to be held and finds his strength in Max, who does so much with so little to keep him alive. Horst is the perfect foil to Max as his non-confrontational ways and once humorous disposition light up what’s left of Max’s heart.
The set (David Magladry) and lighting (Frank Donato) designs work in perfect tandem to create multiple sets including Max and Rudy’s 1930s apartment, a gay club, a train, and Dachau itself. Of these settings, Dachau is the simplest in concept but intricate in the atmosphere it creates. The fence is highlighted by stark white lights with a hidden twist, while various lighting hues indicate the passage of time and temperature as the actors go from sweating in the heat to having frostbitten fingers. A monument to the ever-watching eyes of the guards is the guard tower, where someone is always watching.
While it should be noted that the disturbing themes and actions of the play could upset some viewers, it is definitely something to see. Bent is a thought-provoking piece that opens our eyes to the silent atrocities committed against homosexuals during the reign of the Nazis, and puts a face to the victims. This soul-crushing production runs until October 21st.