'Bent' offers look at brutal history

Gordon Jones
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C2c Theatre has something of a penchant for gritty plays set in seedy environments. Now playing in the Basement Theatre of the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre, their latest trip down the less sunny side of the street is Martin Sherman's "Bent," a trenchant account of the victimization of homosexuals in Germany during the political regime of Hitler's Nazi party, enforced by the paramilitary apparatus of Gestapo and storm-troopers, together with a network of concentration camps.

The play starts, disarmingly enough, with gay nightlife of Berlin in the mid-1930s. On a morning after, Philip Goodridge's Max, elegant in silk dressing gown, is radically hung-over as a result of a drunkenly amnesiac night on the town. His young protege Rudy (Keith Pike), is bright and bouncy. A blond Adonis that Max picked up and bedded on the previous night (James Hawksley) thinks Max is a rich baron with motor car and country estate.

Philip Goodridge as Max and John Montes as Horst in c2c's production of "Bent." - Submitted photo by Sandy Gow

C2c Theatre has something of a penchant for gritty plays set in seedy environments. Now playing in the Basement Theatre of the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre, their latest trip down the less sunny side of the street is Martin Sherman's "Bent," a trenchant account of the victimization of homosexuals in Germany during the political regime of Hitler's Nazi party, enforced by the paramilitary apparatus of Gestapo and storm-troopers, together with a network of concentration camps.

The play starts, disarmingly enough, with gay nightlife of Berlin in the mid-1930s. On a morning after, Philip Goodridge's Max, elegant in silk dressing gown, is radically hung-over as a result of a drunkenly amnesiac night on the town. His young protege Rudy (Keith Pike), is bright and bouncy. A blond Adonis that Max picked up and bedded on the previous night (James Hawksley) thinks Max is a rich baron with motor car and country estate.

But this light, Noel Cowardesque opening goes south fast when the Gestapo bursts in to assassinate blond Adonis, an unfortunate lover of brown-shirt leader Ernst Rohm, in the aftermath of the night of the long knives. As the campaign to criminalize homosexuality escalates, Max and Rudy prudently hit the road, on the run from German authorities, shuttling from Berlin to Hamburg to Stuttgart, living rough and trying to escape to Holland. Inevitably, the pair is eventually arrested and they find themselves entrained for Dachau - a journey that Rudy does not survive.

Together with other proscribed pariahs (red triangle for politicals, green for criminals, yellow star for Jews, and pink triangle for gays), Max and his newfound prison-friend, Horst (Jonathan Montes), are systematically starved, brutalized and punished by assignment to meaningless labour, moving concrete blocks from point to point. Back and forth, back and forth, behind the electrified fence, trudging mesmerically through a nightmare, they carry their pointless loads.

They squabble and fantasize. Clinging to sanity and humanity, they can love only in their imaginations, they can arouse one another only verbally - until Max again loses his young companion to the callously wielded authority of a sadistic prison officer (George Robertson).

"Bent" is a powerful, if bleak play, starting in comic vein and ending in human suffering. Made the more intense by the close intimacy of the Basement Theatre, "Bent" is saved from despair by flashes of grim humour in the depths of deprivation and by the resilience of the human spirit under conditions of extreme adversity - qualities that counterbalance the portrayal of the obscene policies, institutions, methods and instruments of national socialism.

In this descent into the depths, the set is progressively stripped (by uniformed players), reduced from drawing room - surely too pretty, though, for the lousy apartment prescribed by the script - to nightclub, to shadowy prison train, to sterile, geometrical representation of the concentration camp.

Moving and compelling though it be, a caveat must be entered. The final 45 minutes of the show is devoted to dramatizing the soul-crushing tedium of meaningless labour. The audience is drawn into mesmerising, sleep-walking hauling of concrete blocks back and forth within an abstract, Kafkaesque purgatory. It must perhaps be acknowledged, however, that dramatising tedium is exceedingly difficult without generating at least a modicum of the same quality.

Cross-generational balance of younger and more experienced performers is neatly balanced in this show. Principals Goodridge, Pike and Montes carry the main load. Goodridge's transformation from gay blade to haunted survivor is notable, while Pike's Rudy is likeable and persuasive in his petulant innocence. Montes' Horst is grounded and real and moving.

These three talented actors are ably supported by Hawksley, Calvin Powell and Andrew Whalen, representing miscellaneous police and military functions, while cameo roles are provided by Beni Malone as drag-queen and chanteuse, and by Mack Furlong, natural and contained in his one-scene portrayal of Max's discreetly homosexual uncle.

Forthrightly and intelligently directed by Sandy Gow, who moves the first act briskly along and makes best efforts at sculpting the too-prolonged second act of the script, the c2c production of Martin Sherman's "Bent" continues its run until Sunday in the Basement Theatre of the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre.

Curtain time is 8 p.m. Admission is $20. Opening night was fully booked. Seating is limited, so do not dally if this sounds like a show for you.

Organizations: Basement Theatre, C2c Theatre

Geographic location: St. John's, Berlin, Germany Hamburg Stuttgart Holland Dachau

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