BENT: LB SHAKESPEARE CO. FINDS THE HUMANITY IN STORY OF ITS SUPPRESSIONBy Greggory Moore
By this point in my life I’ve had plenty of exposure to portrayals of the Holocaust, both fictional and documentary, in all manner of media. Despite all of them, however, the Holocaust is one of those things to which one never grows accustomed, a phenomenon that becomes no less shocking for all its familiarity. For over a decade the power structure of one of the most progressive and modern civilizations on the planet fell under the spell of mass psychosis and sociopathy, creatively inflicting literally the worst kind of suffering on its own people (and others). Franz Kafka himself would scarcely have believed it possible.
The power and horror of such subject matter is a danger to work with creatively because it is all too easy to produce enfeebled work due to too much reliance on the reality to carry the emotional weight. The Holocaust is inherently poignant—to everybody with a soul, at least—but that fact doesn’t automatically impart emotional import to whatever story a writers happens to set within it.
Fortunately, Martin Sherman’s Bent offers sufficient artfulness in its portrayal of one man being consumed by the perverse sadism of the Third Reich so that we are moved by the individual story on stage and not just the historical event.
Douglas Myers plays Max, a gay Berliner in the mid 1930s prone to drunken blackouts during which he displays a penchant for rough sex. “I know pain is very chic right now,” quips Rudy (John McCutcheon), Max’s live-in lover, “but I don’t like it. Pain hurts.” Shortly Max and Rudy are on the run from Nazi persecution of homosexuals, a flight that does not last long, and after which the terrible irony of Rudy’s bon mot is made flesh.
The remainder of the play takes place in Dachau circa 1936, where Max attempts to stay alive by “working deals,” a skill from his former life to which he desperately clings in an attempt to salvage something of his personal humanity in a world gone absurdly inhumane. In the midst of this struggle he bonds with Horst (Toby Gant), who helps him in this profound but dead-end quest.
Sherman’s script is far from perfect. Its second act may be a bit too Sisyphean for its own good (even if there’s a point here), and ill-conceived redundancy adds at least 10 minutes to the play’s runtime. The worst auctorial sin comes during a scene in which Max describes to Horst how he (i.e., Max) attempted to prove to the Nazis that he was not a “fluff.” Sherman has written Horst here as so impossibly slow on the uptake that a full half of the emotional punch is drained for want of credibility—punch that director Denis McCourt could have preserved with a bit of cutting.
But McCourt generally does well with the material. Sound cues tend to be very effective (particularly concerning a train, a setting that affords a brief but fantastic moment bringing the audience into the action), lighting is simple but solid, and the back-and-forth blocking is more immersive than distracting.
However, McCourt might have pushed a little harder with the acting, which at times seems a bit stiff (though Myers, for one, sometimes turns this to his advantage), at times sloppy (there’s an early, puzzling bit with coffee cups—supposedly full, but whose emptiness is quite on display). But all in all everybody is equal enough to his task. Some of the best performances, though, are in the minor roles. Lukas Vertak is spot-on as a robotic, monstrous Nazi, and early in the play Steven Dean’s bizarre monologic rendering of a German torch song is truly arresting.
Script, direction, and acting meet for a high-water mark during the play’s final scene, which had numerous people in the audience openly weeping (and one theatre critic pretty damn close). You see, Bent is about (re)claiming one’s identity in the face of the most brutal dehumanization—an act of free will that flew in the face of the Nazi regime. In the end, Max is able to (re)claim his identity. It is a true triumph of the will. And that is beautiful, and human.
BENT LONG BEACH SHAKESPEARE CO. • THE EXPO: 4321 ATLANTIC AVE • LONG BEACH 90807 • 562.997.1494 LBSHAKESPEARE.ORG • FRI-SAT 8PM, SUN 2PM • $20; $10 FOR STUDENTS • THROUGH OCTOBER 9