Nancy Sasso Janis
- OnStage Connecticut Critic/Connecticut Critics Circle
Brookfield, CT - I will begin by telling readers that ‘Bent’ by Martin Sherman was the first play that I almost decided not to attend the evening of the performance I had agreed to review. The New York Times called the prize winning drama “powerful and provocative.” I had heard that it would be a tough show to take and the adjectives “brutal yet touching” was used in the press for the show, an odd combination I thought. The opening night buzz was congratulatory but one described it in essence as not being entertainment in the traditional sense and a show that they were not sure they would attend again.
Director Will Jeffries told the audience in his curtain speech (and it was the first time I remember a curtain at this venue) that the piece was guaranteed to offend everybody, so I guess we were warned; he then gave ticket holders permission to laugh during the drama. He also asked how many of us had seen the first production of the 60th anniversary season ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ (I had) and how many were at the venue for the first time (there were many.) I decided to firmly embrace an open mind as the curtain opened fifteen minutes late.
The play written by Martin Sherman in 1979 deals with the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany. When it was first performed, it helped to shine a light on the topic. In the play, Max is a promiscuous gay man living with Rudy in 1930s Berlin who is estranged from his wealthy family because he is gay. He brings home a handsome member of the paramilitary wing of the Nazi party; the man is discovered and killed by Nazis in Max and Rudy’s apartment and the two have to flee the city. While on the run, the two men are captured by the Gestapo and sent on a train to the Dachau concentration camp. The rest of the play takes place in the concentration camp, so the violence continues.
Overall, I found it to be a drama for sure, but there were definitely some laughs mixed in. I would certainly concede that the ending was powerful and heartbreaking and it clearly meets the standard of challenging scripts that Mr. Jeffries was seeking. The new artistic director proposed the script nearly a year ago and worked tirelessly to bring it to life. There was a lot of skin exposed onstage, bloody deaths, some foul language and pretty explicit sexual talk that made me a bit uncomfortable, which was probably the script’s intention. The gruesome manner in which the guards make the lead character convince them that he is not homosexual is discussed on the steps at the front of the stage. The play is absolutely not appropriate for children to attend.
The all-male cast member gave hauntingly convincing performances. Anthony Contento of Woodbury (Caleb in ‘Spitfire Grill’ at Community Theatre at Woodbury) was the driving force of the play as Max and gave a most memorable performance. Joe Russo was outstanding as the prisoner Horst who must wear the pink triangle on every piece of his concentration camp uniform. Mr. Russo is also a playwright whose works have been seen at Hartford Stage. Craig David Rosen returned to the stage after a seven year hiatus as the bespectacled Rudy. Tony Bosco-Schmidt played the drag role of Greta in a great gold gown. Nick Byrne made his CT debut as both the paramilitary named Wolf and a Nazi captain at Dachau. Dana O’Neal played Max’s Uncle Freddie, who is also homosexual. Nick Kaye and Dan Patterson played Nazi guards.
Mr. Jeffries made staging choices that added to the starkness of it all. Later in the season he will appear as President Richard Nixon in ‘Frost/Nixon.’ The set design by Donna F. Glen required significant changes for the first act, and they functioned well. Rebecca Podorski designed the historically accurate costumes (and presumably the wigs that precede the concentration camp haircuts,) and Jonathan Curns, the technical director at NVCC, designed the appropriate lighting that was executed by WCSU senior AJ Bacik. Lou Okell, president of TBTA, designed and executed the sound. Burton Tedesco of NVCC served as fight choreographer and it was convincing enough to be difficult to watch. The play was produced by Desirae Kelley and Nicole Veach.
Final advice if the reader decides to attend is to remember that forewarned is forearmed. I can certainly understand if someone decided that they did not have the strength to sit through it again. The play runs approximately two hours with a well-deserved intermission. The program contains a list of ten community theatres in the region and a plea to support them. There is a new exhibition of paintings by three young artists Jacob Cullers, Noah Steinman and Becky Venable in the gallery in theatre’s lobby.
Photo by house photographer Stephen Cihanek