“Bent,” Through Aug. 5, at Spokane Civic Theatre’s Firth Chew Studio Theatre, call 325-2507
I can think of far more charming ways to spend an evening.
In fact, there were moments during Martin Sherman’s “Bent” when I wished I was anywhere else, such as being audited by the IRS. Chillingly real depictions of Nazi brutality do that to me, as do all too vivid descriptions of gay sex.
Yet nowhere could I have found the craft of theater performed so powerfully and so well. Director Marilyn Langbehn has crafted an absolutely stunning piece of work, and the trio of main actors - Kevin Connell, Tim Brandt and Scott Dunckley - give memorable performances. Even if you have reservations about some of the content, as I do, you’ll have to admire the sheer theatrical virtuosity of this production.
“Bent,” written in 1979, is about Berlin homosexuals during the early years of the Third Reich. Langbehn’s triumph is to make every scene crackle with tension. From the very beginning, when Max wakes up from a drunken spree at a nightclub, we know that something portentous is taking place. The first act absolutely races by, as we explore the relationship between the degenerate Max and his far more gentle and vulnerable lover, Rudy, a dancer.
All of this is staged with the harrowing urgency of the best cinematic thriller. The second act takes place entirely on a rock pile at Dachau.
Kevin Connell, sporting a buzz cut and an assortment of bruises acquired from his rough trade, is nothing short of brilliant as Max. Connell portrays him as outwardly tough, but inwardly weak. He’s a born schemer, a dealmaker, and essentially a coward. He tries to dump Rudy to save his own hide; eventually, he does something even worse to him.
Brandt plays Rudy as one of those angelic souls who seem doomed from the beginning. Rudy is sweet and kind, but he seems to respond to crisis by going all aflutter. He needs Max if he’s going to survive, and just when Rudy begins to develop some strength of character, it’s too late.
In the second act, Max meets another man, Horst, in Dachau. Dunckley plays Horst as a noble spirit, one who finally teaches Max how to develop some true courage. Dunckley even shows flashes of the physical comedy he displayed in “The Foreigner” but this performance goes far deeper. Both he and Connell have to create an entire relationship, an entire love affair, without ever touching each other or even looking at each other. They pull it off brilliantly.
I want to issue a huge warning here about the content. This play contains the following scenes: Wolf (Jamie Flanery) parading across the stage in a G-string; an SS officer cutting a man’s throat with a knife, complete with dripping blood; several brutal scenes of beatings; one explicit verbal (and impassioned) description of gay sex; and two horrendously loud shotgun blasts.
While these are things that plenty of people would just as soon avoid in the theater, I have no problem with them from a strictly artistic point of view. In fact, some of these scenes are among the most powerful and effective of the entire play. I just want audiences to know what they are getting into.
But I do have some artistic reservations with Sherman’s script. While the first act is a remarkably compact description of life and terror in Berlin in the ‘30s, the second act often flirts with trivializing the entire experience. I have some trouble with turning Dachau into some kind of gay pride affirmation fable. The ending, in which Max finally dons the pink triangle (signifying a homosexual), was a cliche that was telegraphed for a half-hour.
Fortunately, most of this play teaches far more important lessons about Dachau. Like “Schindler’s List,” it shows us that compassion and humanity survive in the worst circumstances. More importantly, though, it shows us just exactly what happens when the bully boys of intolerance take over.
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