Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of BENT at The Brookfield Theatre For The Arts
Through May 13th
Brookfield’s Bent is a powerful, engaging, searing piece of theatre that is probably more relevant to today than when I had seen it on Broadway in 1979 with Richard Gere and David Dukes. Of course, when it debuted in the United States on Broadway in 1979, very little was known about the treatment of gays by the Nazis and the play, written by Martin Sherman, served as a launching pad for historical awareness. Thanks to plays like Bent and other fictional and non-fictional pieces on Berlin in the 1930s, we know that the Jews were not the only ones persecuted. Gays, prostitutes, homeless people, and certain religious sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses all fell within the ambit of Nazi scrutiny and eventual torture in concentration camps.
Bent, the name derived from early Eastern European slang for gays, tells the story of Max, a hedonistic gay man in Berlin in the 30s, who is suddenly thrust into a living Hell where people are executed for wearing glasses or having a cold; a world where what you are or what you are perceived to be (Gay, Jew, etc.) is more important than who you are as a human being. Max’s journey from living the good life to the life and death struggle in the Dachau concentration camp is much like Dante’s journey through Hell with the poet Virgil in the Inferno where one level of suffering leads to another, more insidious one, and just when you think it cannot get any worse, it does. In many ways, the play also takes Max (as well as us) on a journey through Elisabeth-Kübler Ross’ five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. Max at first is in denial of who he is and what is happening. He even refuses a chance to escape his fate without his partner whom he is not sure he even loves. Anger sets in and is soon replaced by Max thinking he can bargain his way out of anything, even the horrors of a concentration camp. Depressed and almost broken by the mundane task of moving stones back and forth, Max eventually accepts who he is and that he has the capacity to truly love others even in a nihilistic universe. While some reviewers and theatre-goers may view Bent as purely an existential play, others (as do myself) see it as a search for meaning and hope analogous to Victor Frankl’s Search for Meaning.
The cast is outstanding. Anthony Contento (who Pillow Talking loved in Brookfield’s And Then There Were None) gives an authentic, layered performance as Max. Mr. Contento convincingly portrays the one-hundred-eighty-degree arc of his character (and his journey through the aforementioned five stages) so that by the end of the play, the denouement is not surprising at all, but nevertheless still electrifying. Joe Russo is wonderful as Horst, Max’s work mate (and lover) in the camp. He brings a refreshingly hopeful pessimism to the character (I know that is an oxymoron, but so is the entire play in many ways) and who, like Virgil with Dante on his trip through Hell, enables Max to finally see the light and accept the truth about who he is as a human being. Craig David Rosen is spot-on as Rudy, Max’s steadfast and loyal companion. Dana O’Neal shines as Uncle Freddie, a quirky but lovable “fluffy” as he refers to himself. His nuanced performance reminded me of the character parts that Paxton Whitehead and Philip Bosco have played. And speaking of Boscos, Tony Bosco-Schmidt brings just the right mix of hard-edged Harvey Fierstein and soft-edged Nathan Lane to the role of Greta. The Nazis played by Nick Byrne, Nick Kaye, and Dan Patterson were all scary as Hell and the director’s decision to have them storm up to the stage via the vomitorium made me jump in my seat. And it also was nice to see Nick Kaye’s versatility without his impeccable British accent (wink, wink).
A theatre featuring a play like Bent needs a seasoned professional at the helm; one who can navigate carefully between bigoted, controversial, and existential tsunamis on one side and the wakes from the tsunamis on the other represented by thematic expressions of hope, peace, acceptance, and inclusion. Fortunately, Brookfield has such a seasoned professional in Artistic Director (and Bent’s director) Will Jeffries. Whether acting on stage or directing off stage, Mr. Jeffries brings his extensive years of professional experience, insight and vision to every theatrical project he undertakes. Bent is no exception. His direction and instincts are excellent.
It’s hard to believe that a 1979 play about discrimination, bigotry, and exclusion could be more relevant to today than it was when it was presented, but I sincerely believe that is the case with Bent. I hardly remember the Broadway version, except thinking that I just saw one of the hottest actors around – Richard Gere – in a controversial play. Of course, I was a different person back in 1979. When I walked out of TBTA’s version of Bent, I couldn’t help but think that I just saw a profound piece of theatre.
Once upon a time, I began college with diverse interests and abilities, but like everyone must, ultimately had to choose a major. After exploring and seriously pondering my options (premed, writing, among others) I elected to pursue my passion for people and fell into the field of psychology. And while I’ve had many jobs throughout my adult life, I’ve never felt that any other educational experience could have better prepared me for all of my endeavors. That is because to me, psychology is what underscores everything we hope to understand about the human condition.
Another of my passions (obviously) is theatre – a dynamic vehicle which supports and gives legs to humanness and to psychology on so many levels. Through the expression of ideas, the creation of rich dialogue, and the development of three-dimensional characters, it illustrates many of the essential elements of being; things like life, love, death, sex, emotion, self-awareness, motivation, conflict, and change, to name just a few. Some works are light or humorous, some edgy or unconventional; others are deep, sometimes dark, and altogether cerebral. The latter often is the kind that takes hold of you, that forces you to feel something, and occasionally even makes you shudder. It also may bring to light our inherent existential angst – and the need we have to find meaning in an absurd, often chaotic world. It is precisely that kind of theatre which couldn’t be more aptly demonstrated than by The Brookfield Theatre for the Arts’ (TBTA) recent production of Bent, the haunting, intense, and masterful 1979 play by Martin Sherman.
I admittedly walked into the theatre knowing little else other than that the story takes place in a Nazi concentration camp. I rather prefer it that way – when my mind is like a blank slate and I can be drawn in to a story which plays out before me, and be truly surprised by what is to come. After a gripping first act, I had the opportunity during intermission to convey this to Bent’s skilled and insightful director, Will Jeffries, who told me if that was the case, I’d be that much more surprised in Act 2. And I was; in fact, I felt like I’d been punched in the proverbial stomach and was, in a word, shattered.
Bent is a powerfully provocative piece of theatre that is as important and relevant today as when it was written, as well as for the time period it depicts. Deftly mixing comedic elements within the wholly tragic setting of the Holocaust, it is, as in life, about the triumph of the human spirit. When it opens, we are introduced to a very colorful Max and Rudy, a homosexual couple who are living hand-to-mouth in an apartment they cannot afford in 1930s Berlin. We learn that a very drunk and hedonistic Max had brought home another man the previous night and soon all hell literally breaks loose, but not for the reasons one would assume. Before we can fully wrap our heads around the events which have thus far transpired, Max and Rudy are on the run from the Gestapo; but they cannot escape them and eventually end up on a train to a Dachau concentration camp. It is there that Max meets Horst; a young, gay man who is soon to have a profound impact on his life. Bent illuminates facts unbeknownst to many a layperson – it was not just Jews who were persecuted by Hitler and the Nazis. Among those targeted also were the disabled, criminals, and the “bent,” European slang for gays. What we do know, however, is that during that time the act of denying one’s true self was not just for social purposes but to avoid certain death.
Further tragedy unfolds, but like the daisy that pushes through the crack in the pavement, there also is beauty. Relationships are forged and the glints of love and hope pepper the darkness. But dare I say more? At least for me, the visceral elements of Bent were so much more potent in the unknowing. What we do also see are basic human frailties and the impossible choices one must make to survive both physically and psychologically in what only could have been true Hell on Earth; a world filled with disorientation, confusion, and all-consuming dread. It is difficult subject matter to say the least – and there are things that for some might be shocking and uncomfortable, death at the hands of SS notwithstanding. It is like the train wreck you just cannot divert your eyes from watching.
Despite the Nazi attempts to depersonalize and strip the rights from everyone in their wake, Max and Horst triumph. But how they triumph may not be in the ways one might expect. Psychological theory recognizes that every individual experiences intrapsychic conflict and angst. We may call these givens: freedom and responsibility; death; isolation; and meaninglessness. Some of the ways in which we relieve our suffering and discontent are through authenticity and what existential philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called internal wisdom. We see Max finally achieve this with Horst, who serves as his transformational agent to change both his heart and his mind.
I must commend this phenomenal cast for their riveting and compelling portrayals, skillfully orchestrated by an astute Jeffries. Anthony Contento is just spectacular as the angst-ridden Max. A demanding role, he delivers a heavily nuanced portrayal of this conflicted man who has little sense of self; a man who will do anything to survive, including making deals with the devil. Joe Russo is a beautiful, haunting Horst – who unlike Max, knows and accepts who he is. Russo’s layered rendering is real, raw, and entirely unafraid. Rudy, Max’s bespectacled lover with the obsessively green thumb is played by a terrific Craig David Rosen; a character whose naïveté and histrionics are at times comical, but in the end are the source of his undoing. Tony Bosco-Schmidt is scene-stealing as the charismatic Greta, the quirky and cunning drag queen; and Dana O’Neal is endearing as the “closet fluff” Uncle Freddie who unsuccessfully attempts to lend a hand to Max. Nick Byrne is alternately funny as Max’s one-night stand Wolf and altogether hateful as the SS Captain. And finally, Nick Kaye and Dan Patterson are the spine-chilling, detestable guards, who adroitly spew Hitler’s evil.
Shout-outs also to Donna E. Glen for set design and her great attention to detail. Scene changes were a bit awkward at times, however it provided the audience a well-needed moment to breathe after the often catastrophic action. Kudos to Rebecca Pokorski for costume design; to Lou Okell for sound design and execution; Jonathan Curns for lighting design; A. J. Bacik for light execution; and Burton Tedesco for fight choreography; as well as the many other hands in the production crew.
Thank you TBTA for Bent – theatre that is beyond thought-provoking; that sometimes makes you uncomfortable, and most definitely leaves a profound impression. The kind of theatre that stays with you long after the curtain has come down.