Presented by Theatre@First
A Play by Martin Sherman
Directed by Nick Bennett-Zendzian
Performances: Friday, September 14 – Saturday, September 22
Unity Somerville, 6 William Street at College Ave.
TICKETS – $15 for adults, $12 for students/seniors. Group discounts available.
Review by Gillian Daniels
(Somerville) When the stakes grow to dizzying heights, Theatre@First’s production of Bent has the power to draw its audience as tightly as a bowstring. The air crackles expectantly as viewers wait for the other shoe to drop. As its characters are fenced in with barbed wire and SS guards, they are left with nothing but the hope that things can’t get any worse. It certainly will, especially when that backdrop is the Holocaust and the principal characters are homosexual.
Bent is a show that most people should see once. It’s also a show that most people, I imagine, can only see once.
The first act is set up, demonstrating the characters in gay, glittering pre-World War II Berlin. It’s comparatively soft material to what comes later. By the last half, though, Max (Jason Hair-Wynn)
risks not just his life, but his soul.
Hair-Wynn’s Max is a sort of jock, persecuted but not very good at being martyred. He’s selfish, self-obsessed, and resourceful enough to survive as his conditions worsen. Martin Sherman’s writing refuses to paint him in a flattering light, even when the Nazis are forcing him into the most inhumane situations. His indignities, at first, are almost tolerable, like being forced from the home he shares with his primary, but far from only, lover, Rudy (Rocky Graziano). Melodrama colors his changing routines. Soon, as Max’s conditions worsen, it becomes a struggle just to look at the stage.
As the story moves to a single setting, Max’s interactions with fellow camp detainee, Horst (Zack McQueary), come to dominate the show. Act II is unflinching in its horror but willing, in the spirit of men
finding humor in dark times, to allow its characters moments to breathe and laugh bitterly. It’s a contrast, however, that only makes the world they inhabit more bleak.
Actors in supporting roles are given the chance to shine here. John Deschene’s club owner Greta, who is both wise cracking and heart-breaking, serenades the audience Cabaret-style complete with period-appropriate cigarette holder and cross dressing. Jason Merrill, James Scheffler, and Daniel Dolinov all take turns as chilling SS men.
Violent, overtly sexual, and disturbing content guarantee Bent will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Blood is shed on stage and sex is sometimes described in vivid detail. It’s important to at least make the attempt to watch the play, though, even if a viewer is moved to walk-out during intermission.
See it not just because it’s about history well worth preserving, which it is, but because it’s a chilling reminder of a very contemporary brand of homophobia. The show questions the importance of living without the freedom to be one’s self. Its answer, to the benefit of the audience, is life affirming without being easy.