Bent explores the persecution of homosexuals during the Nazi era, at Toronto’s Hart House Theatre
I knew as soon as I saw the lighting fixtures. Not the regular instruments, but the lights onstage used to illuminate the small moments of the show. Three of them stood out from each of the rough beam columns that made up a large portion of the set, and they looked just like showerheads, and so I knew. Knew that someone at Hart House Theatre (Dominic Manca, the set and lighting designer) had done their research into Nazi death camps, and knew that the show was going to hang right in the sweet spot where Bent should hang – right on the rising edge of misery and hope.
Bent is a play that’s close to my heart in many ways. Its storyline – about the persecution, torture, and murder of homosexuals during the Nazi era – feels both personal and immediate to me as a queer Jew. It has a long and storied history, as well. Bent was controversial when it was first performed in 1979 because of its sympathetic treatment of the gay main characters. It remains a site of discussion and debate around morals, values, and the complex choices love pushes us toward or away from.
I will admit that I lost faith a little in the beginning. Rudy and Max, played by Jordan Gray and Liam Volke respectively, opened the show a little too fast, without the kind of connection we’d expect from longtime lovers. The emergence of naked, sleepy Wolf (Nathaniel Bacon) from their bed had the right effect, though – in the face of some adversity, suddenly they were a pair, and so they remained for as long as the text allows, anyhow. The multitalented Ryan G. Hinds as Greta, explaining with vigor how very queer he is not (while packing a suitcase full of dresses and lingerie) strikes the right note – every rat who can flee this sinking ship, by any means, is going. Greta returns to his wife and children in men’s shoes and a porkpie hat, hanging Rudy and Max to dry.
The show continues to wrestle honestly with questions of choice, morality, love, one’s essential nature, self-preservation, and survival. Max makes the choice to decline an escape route offered by his family until one is available for Rudy, and then finds himself delivered back onto the horns of the same dilemma in even more grueling circumstances.
The Nazis in this show, played by Edward Karek and Thomas Gough, are brutal and terrifying – which I deeply appreciated . Some productions make the choice to soft-pedal some parts of the atrocity to help audiences become more comfortable. But the whole show depends upon the Nazis to play the bass line, thrumming and malevolent, so that other characters can find other places to play – for Rudy to be tender and uncomplicatedly idealistic, for Max to reduce the world to the immediate problem and solve it however he can, for Horst (well-realized by Jad Farris) to burn with honest idealism, and for us in the audience to love and forgive them all. Director Carter West gets all the points for understanding this most important point.
There were a few flat notes in the evening, mostly when actors rushed a bit of dialogue that they might have feared wouldn’t fall well. I expect these will have fallen out by now, as the cast trusts the audience a little more, even in the more romantically or sexually explicit parts. I wish, to be honest, that this show was going to run longer – I’d love to see it after thirty or forty performances, by which time I imagine the actors would be just as eloquent in their silence as in speech, characters both brave and terrified, playing the show under the showerhead/lights hanging malevolently from their beams. But go anyhow. This production of Bent is more than worth the time and ticket.
- Bent plays at Hart House Theatre (7 Hart House Circle) through March 9th, 2013.
- Performances nightly Wednesday through Saturday at 8 PM. One matinee on the 9th at 2:00 PM.
- Tickets are $25. $15 for students and seniors.
- Tickets available online, by telephone (416) 978-8849, in advance at the U of T Tix box office, or at the Hart House box office immediately before performances begin.