We all know the usual arc of a love story by now. Nearly every romantic comedy movie of the last 30 years offers the same “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back” narrative trope, and if you’ve seen one Katherine Heigl movie, you’ve seen them all. But this seemingly endless repetition only makes it all the more refreshing when you come across an innovative piece of fiction that depicts love in a way that says something new. And even though Hart House Theatre’s latest production, Bent, is the furthest thing from a romantic comedy, it arguably tells a far more powerful story about love than any go-to date movie. Its heavy story and somewhat racy content will inevitably turn some viewers away, but those who give it a chance are in for crackling, memorable night of theatre.
Written by Martin Sherman, Bent follows the life of Max (Liam Volke), a man living in 1930s Germany whose freewheeling lifestyle and homosexuality land him at odds with both his unaccepting family and the Nazi rule of the era. When he and his lover, a dancer named Rudy (Jordan Gray), are forced to flee their Berlin apartment, they are caught by the Gestapo en route through the forest and are forced onto a train. After a treacherous journey, Max arrives at the concentration camp Dachau, where he begins his numbing, unending work and befriends Horst (Jad Farris), a compassionate fellow prisoner.
Bent takes many other dramatic turns that are best left as surprises, but even from its most basic plot description, the wrenching subject matter is clear. But director Carter West treats the difficult material with all the respect and solemnity it deserves and offers the audience a truly moving character study that conveys the horror of the Holocaust through the lens of one man’s experience.
The small scope of the story falls into place perfectly with West’s intimate approach to the production. The simple but sturdy backdrop stands in for the walls of an apartment, storefronts on the Berlin City streets, a train car, and the fences of a concentration camp. The high walls make for a slightly claustrophobic set that subtly echoes the intense restriction and persecution of the time.
Aside from this backdrop, though, West leaves the stage largely uncluttered by props. This allows the movement of the actors to become the sole focus of the audience’s attention, and West uses that to his full advantage. Many striking images throughout the play are created simply through the positioning of the actors. Just by having one actor stand on a small platform above the others or by setting two actors as mirror images of each other on opposite sides of the stage, West makes powerful statements without anyone having to say a word. The play’s warm lighting and woozy, jazzy music during the scene breaks adds to the hazy quality of Bent, which places decadence and love in direct opposition to judgement and hatred.
Also helping Bent pack an emotinal wallop is its uniformly strong cast. As Max, Volke has a dramatic character arc to work with, and he is fearless in his portrayal. Max seems reprehensible at times, but Volke’s nuanced performance forces the audience to ponder their own judgements: can we fully condemn Max for doing what he thinks will give him his best chance at survival? And after an already treacherous narrative journey, Volke nails his character’s intense final action, whose symbolism could have come across as heavy-handed in the hands of a different actor. Farris, who becomes a key player in Bent’s second act, also contributes a strong dose of humanity and proves to have brilliant chemistry with Volke, despite the fact that their characters are rarely even permitted to make eye contact with each other.
Bent’s message is unavoidably political, and the play tackles an important and often overlooked part of history. But if the persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust sounds like an overly grim subject, you might be relieved to hear that Bent also offers some lighter moments. The easy banter between Volke and Farris is actually quite funny at times and provides welcome relief from the injustice and suffering depicted in the rest of the play.
Even with all the odds against them, the characters in Bent keep up hope and learn from each other in unexpected ways. This raises the emotional stakes and makes the tragic story even more moving, but it also gives the play an unexpectedly life-affirming message. West’s appropriately tender direction and the dynamic performances bring Sherman’s script to life perfectly, and Hart House Theatre’s production certainly lives up to Bent’s reputation as a resonant piece of contemporary drama.
Bent runs at Hart House Theatre until March 9.