Love is a Revolutionary Act – “Bent” at the Winston-Salem Theatre Alliance

By Chad Nance

Yeah, we all need someone we can dream on
And if you want it, baby, well you can dream on me”
– Mick Jagger

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Imagine, if you will, a world where both love and suicide are revolutionary and defiant acts. Martin Sherman’s play “Bent” presents us with such a world. A world that heartbreakingly existed in Germany during the rise of the Nazi’s. While many of us are quite aware of the inhuman brutality levied against Jews, Gypsies, the disabled, and intellectuals- most of us are blissfully unaware that the primitive violence of Germany’s fascists was also turned on Germany’s homosexual community. The Winston-Salem Theatre Alliance’s passionate, dark, and raw production of ”Bent” takes audiences on a harrowing journey through one of the ugliest times in history and manages, with great effort and courage, to show us that in the end our humanity is as simple and complex as our ability to love one another.

While “Bent” is set in a time that feels far removed from ours, there has never been a more important moment to see and experience this magnificent and moving work of art. We have fascist rhetoric escalating every day during our own Presidential campaign. We live in a state that just a few years ago not only voted to lash out against the North Carolina’s homosexual community in a vicious and personal way. The North Carolina state government also intended to brand immigrants with a special ID that Jewish leaders pushed back against because of its similarities to Nazi policies pre-WWII. As recently as 2009, a production of “Bent” in Texas had to be practically performed in secret because of an extreme “Christian” group that used their influence with local authorities to shut down the community theater who had chosen to perform the play. There has, perhaps, never been a better time for the Theatre Alliance’s production. “Bent” is not simply a play about the past- it is a warning about the now and the coming future.

“Bent” begins on the Night of the Long Knives when the callow Max gets loaded and brings home a member of the SA. This careless and selfish act not only deeply hurts his naive and loving partner Rudy (Wonderfully performed by Seph Schonekas) it paints a target on Max and Rudy forcing them to go on the run from the Nazis. To disclose any more of the plot would be to remove some of the power of the piece. It is best that the audience go in blind in order to truly experience the emotional and visceral impact of “Bent”.

Director Jamie Lawson has done some of his most empathetic and powerful work with “Bent”. The spare staging, the spirited and focused blocking, and the magnificent use of music and sound make “Bent” an immersive, chilling, and triumphant work of art that may be the most vital and important local production of 2016. The stage is simply lit and presented. The cold planks of the barracks floor at Dachau and the piles of dirt, clothes, and shoes at the front of the stage convey a feeling of squalid oppression and painful memory. The piles of clothing and shoes reminded this reviewer of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC where piles of thousands of shoes stripped from the victims of the Nazis stand as a silent and painful testimony of the great loss to humanity that occurred when the Nazis brought their fear and hatred to bear. Thad Templeton’s scenic design and Suzanne Vaughan’s lighting design make the world of “Bent” all too real for viewers in a way that films (even archival films) could not.

Michael Ackerman bravely takes his Max from dilettante to a man who cannot be broken by the cruelty and hatred of other men. His performance is brave, passionate, and heartbreaking. Seph Schonekas plays Rudy with such insight and warmth that the first instinct I had after watching the play was to find him and give him a deserved hug. John C. Wilson’s Horst is a performance of great compassion and a dignity that serves to make the Nazi thugs seem even more weak, frightened , and truly powerless as the play unfolds.

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Ray Stewart has a single scene as Max’s Uncle Freddie and makes the moment memorable with wit, grace, and an underlying cynical sadness.

Zac Hiatt, Donald Carroll, and Adam Plant have the thankless jobs of playing “Bent”’s hissable villains. They do so with real courage. It is a brave act to portray the ruthless, inhuman, and petty bullies of Nazi Germany, but these actors understand that by portraying evil they provide a great service to the story and to the victim of history’s real Nazi thugs. Hiatt, in particular, brings a cold brutality to his entitled characters, both of whom are hiding their inward fear with their outward brutality and agression. It must be noted that seeing the black Nazi uniforms and watching them stalk the stage close enough to reach out and touch sends a jolt of electric fear through the audience. These actors embody evil and make the dark cloud of oppression all too real and present.

Thao Ngyuen as Greta and cellist Thomas Graham deserve special mention. Their haunting and ironic musical numbers are a surreal counterpoint to the realities presented onstage. Ngyuen’s singing and elegant presence becomes a mixture of melancholy and playfulness to haunt the viewer in a way that remain along with “Bent”’s arresting imagery and palatable sorrow.

“Bent” is an elegiac lament about a barbarous past that resonates in our present where hatreds and fears seem to be the daily discourse and humanity seems determined to most often follow their worst and most reactionary impulses. “Bent” also shows us that we should not allow ourselves to be ruled by despair and animosity. In the end “Bent” is about victory- the victory of tenderness and humanity over the forces of malice and easy violence. The small minded and terrified people who spread fear and hatred of “The Other” will never have complete victory until they figure out how to utterly destroy the virtues of simple kindness and the rapture of true, human connection. Love is revolutionary in all times… and nothing else matters.

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Editor’s: Note: Theater Alliance will be performing “Bent” next weekend and we cannot recommend enough that you do your heart and your mind the favor of catching this important performance. Tickets remain available for the following shows:

Thursday, January 21, 2016 at 8 pm
Friday, January 22, 2016 at 8 pm
Saturday, January 23, 2016 at 8 pm
Sunday, January 24, 2016 at 2 pm

You can get tickets online HERE.

Content Warning: “Bent” is not for children. The play contains some nudity, graphic violence, and adult themes.