Saturday, March 2, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Bent

Jed Farris (photo credit: Daniel DiMarco)
Love Behind the Wire Never Quite Blooms
by Christian Baines
Gay love in the trenches is a common enough theme. Gay love in a concentration camp is a harder sell, but Bent makes a good attempt at it. Its first act in particular is loaded with tension, focus, and a clear, chilling narrative drive. 
The Night of Long Knives has officially erased queers from Hitler’s vision for Germany – among them, a handsome one night stand picked up by a drunken Max (Liam Volke), much to the dismay of his dancer boyfriend Rudy (Jordan Gray). Now discovered and forced to flee Berlin, the two struggle to secure the paperwork for flight to Amsterdam. And as their relationship begins to disintegrate, the prospect of freedom looks more and more remote. Eventually, the Nazis catch up with them, forcing Max to secure his own survival, before finding love in the most unlikely and gruesome of places.
There’s just a lot of heat and pathos within the script that’s underexplored.

It’s the apprehending of Max and Rudy that effectively cuts Bent into two plays, one following them as fugitives, the other observing Max as a prisoner, and the tone between the two is markedly different. Act one is tense and moves along at a brisk pace, with a script just engaging enough to invest its audience in the two men’s fate. Once the two are arrested, writer Martin Sherman lets the full brutality of the Nazis’ treatment of queers come to bear, but in this production, scenes that should wrench at our hearts fall somewhat flat. Despite a strong first act, there’s little chemistry built up between Max and Rudy, so as horrible as their ultimate separation is, its power feels somewhat muted.  

It can be argued that the real relationship at the centre of this piece is the one formed between Max and fellow prisoner Horst (Jad Farris), whose confinement prevents them from looking at one another or touching. But this authentic detail presents a huge challenge to both director and actors to build and sustain chemistry. It unfortunately never comes, leaving their verbal exchanges feel strangely detached and empty despite a game performance from Farris. Max, however, feels awfully generic for a character going through such extreme experiences. Volke – indeed, the entire cast – is never less than professional, but there’s little emotional evidence of the terrible choices he’s forced to make.
Which is not to say Bent is a bad play, or that director Carter West has delivered a poor production. There’s just a lot of heat and pathos within the script that’s underexplored. What’s left is a story that’s tense, thought-provoking and competently told, but misses too many opportunities to transform to something truly gripping. It’s the kind of work that should leave audiences in desperate need of a stiff drink for all the right reasons. But in this case, leaves one happy to finish the evening dry.

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