When I read Martin Sherman’s Bent last year, I was extremely impressed with the intensity of the writing. I loved his choice to not only shed some light on an area of the Holocaust that is not discussed quite as often, but within that, create a tale of a man who finds himself through his experiences at the Dachau Concentration Camp. I am proud to say that Dominion Stage’s production successfully brought the power of this piece to life. Fantastic writing, intriguing staging choices, and talented acting turned my night into an emotional roller coaster, and made for an incredible experience.
Directed by Shawn G. Byers, Sherman’s play takes place during the Holocaust, and follows Max’s story as he tries to survive during this harsh period. Sherman captures the cruelties of this time through the numerous deaths and descriptions of the harsh work in these camps. Interestingly, Sherman paints Judaism in this period as almost a blessing compared to being gay. The yellow star was seen as a step up from the pink triangle in the concentration camps and resulted in better treatment. This idea, though horrible, was fascinating, and provided a different perspective on the Holocaust.
However, the true brilliance of the writing can be found through Max’s journey and the relationship he creates with Horst (Keith Miller) in the work camp. Throughout the play, Max (Rob Batarla) has difficulty accepting his sexuality and the emotions that follow. Only after facing the cruelties of the Nazis’ actions does he begin to find himself. The idea that an individual can find personal growth in such a harsh place is incredible, but also bittersweet. Sherman created a character capable of change that I wanted to see succeed, yet that very realization about himself can really only end in one way during the Holocaust: death.
David M. Moretti’s set enhanced the production, particularly in the second act, which took place in the Dachau Concentration Camp. An electric fence was set up between the audience and the actors. Behind the fence, there was a ditch surrounded by brick, which we later found was meant as a place to hold the dead bodies. The placement of the fence shocked me at the top of the act. I was confused as to why Byers would choose to distance the audience from the action occurring on stage, but in the end, it did the opposite, especially in some of the more powerful scenes of the play, such as the love making scene. The placement of the fence emphasized the message of this scene.
Throughout the performance, we see a blooming relationship form between Horst and Max, which leads up to the scene in which they make love without touching. The two men stood at opposite ends of the stage, facing the audience, and made love with nothing but their words. The writing of this emotionally charged scene consists of few lines, but the power and tension of the moment was at an all time high, part of which was due to the placement of the fence. Byers’ choice to distance the audience from the action increased the intimacy of the scene. The moment was between Horst and Max, and represented their ability to share a human experience within a harsh environment. The placement of the fence however emphasized the idea that no one could intrude on this moment – including the audience.. They found a way to defy the Nazis and no one could take that away from them.
The acting of such a powerful play can be difficult, but the cast tackled the job with immense success. However, there were a few performers in particular who caught my attention. Jason Wonacott portrayed an innocent and sweet Rudy, Max’s roommate. Wonacott created a character who was so easy to adore, especially in his interactions with Max. Wonnacott and Batarla played off each other extremely well, and worked together to create a strong bond that I wanted to see escape Berlin alive.
Miller’s timid and passionate approach to Horst was brilliant. I felt for him when he admitted his love to Max, and the fact that his love was the only thing keeping him alive in the work camp. Miller created a beautifully honest character that connected to the deeper moments of the play, but I also loved Miller’s ability to infuse humor into such a dark story. At numerous points throughout the play, Miller would poke fun at Max in a sarcastic manner, which provided a playful quality to their relationship.
Batarla’s portrayal of Max shined in the second act. I was amused to find that while some of Bartarla’s emotionally lighter scenes towards the beginning of the play were overshadowed by the other actors, his deeper moments were incredible, especially in the final moments of the production. The beauty of Max’s character is that while he struggles to come to terms with his sexuality throughout the play, he finally finds himself through his relationship with Horst in the concentration camp. This journey could be difficult to convey, but Batarla conquered the task with ease. I realized just how much his character had won me over when he finally picked up the pink star at the end of the play, and I was crying.Dominion Stage’s Bent was an experience I will always remember. Sherman’s writing alone is brilliant, but Byers’ work brought the piece to life. The incredible power of the play never stopped building and based on the dead silence that met the end of the final scene, I can tell the audience would agree.