Play skillfully explores Holocaust experiences
Love is often the last thing one would have expected to find in the Dachau Concentration Camp. But in Martin Sherman’s Bent, directed by David Miller, it is exactly what Max, the protagonist played by Victor L. Shopov, stumbles upon in his lover Horst, played by Brooks Reeves. On Saturday evening, Bent was performed by the Zeitgeist Theater Company at the Boston Center for the Arts’ Plaza Theatre.
The story of Bent focuses on a gay man, Max, who is living in Berlin when the play opens. The show masterfully portrays the Nazis’ persecution of gay men by chronicling Max’s ordeals, first in Berlin, then as a fugitive and then finally in Dachau. The show additionally follows the horrors that Horst, another gay inmate of Dachau, faces. The two end up in a relationship that is as close to love as anything that happened in the camps could be called.
The theatre provided a small, intimate venue for the show. This intimacy drew the audience into the show and made them feel as if they truly are in the camp with the actors.
During the play, Max struggles to reconcile his view of the world and of himself with the intense self-loathing that is brought out in the camp. Equally hard to reconcile with his self-loathing is the love he finds for Horst. Yet despite their struggles, the lovers manage to find love for each other, even when tragedy strikes them.
Shopov and Reeves gave a phenomenal performance. The audience could feel the terror at many points in the show, notably when Max opens the door to find the Schutzstaffel standing there rather than his landlord. The terror is equally present in the scene when Max is taking the train to Dachau. On the train, we see the violence of the SS guards and their hatred of those on it. We also see Max’s fear, as he has no idea what is in store for him. Max’s attitude is juxtaposed against Horst’s resignation (he is being returned to Dachau after having been given a different assignment for a short time). Yet, despite the terror, the show still manages to maintain a sense of normalcy and humanity. Despite the unimaginable horror of Dachau, we still see humanity in the guards, in the prisoners and in the people of Berlin. The guards show it when they give Max medicine (which he gives to Horst). Max’s landlord shows some of it by asking Max for rent when they see each other in the barracks. It is shown by Max’s kindness toward Horst and by Greta, a drag queen played by Brandeis’ own Ben Lewin ’16, turning a blind eye when Max and Rudy, Max’s original lover, flee Berlin.
Greta, a character who appeared in drag any time he appeared onstage, provided a bleak view into how the clubs in Berlin were run. One could draw parallels between Bent and Cabaret, as both feature a drag queen and nightclub scenes.
Chillingly, when the audience returns from intermission and when they leave after the show, the stage is set with barbed wire fences, as found in the camps. The audience is forced to interact with the fences because they are close enough to the seats as to necessitate the audience’s walking around them to get to their seats. The audience is forced by these interactions to imagine what the whole situation would have been like in a very personal way. There are many props that are left onstage, forcing the audience to contemplate being in the setting itself.
The lighting design was very successful in portraying the mood of the show, as well as being helpful to set the stage for many of the scenes in the play. The scene with Max on the train to Dachau uses a combination of sound effects including the bone-chilling screams of the passengers, a sheet with lighting effects behind it to evoke a sense of movement and very dreary and dark lighting design. The lighting transforms the stage to represent a variety of settings—among them a forest, Berlin, Germany and the concentration camp.
The whole production helps to draw the audience member in and make them feel as if they are witnessing the play themselves as participants rather than passive audience members. In the scenes set in Dachau, the guard, played by a member of the ensemble, stands in the aisle, making the audience feel as though they have themselves been brought into the camp.
Overall, Bent was a powerful play that brought out many deep emotions in the audience members—many were crying after the show. Every aspect of the performance served to convey the emotion and power intended by the playwright and helped bring home the important issues being addressed.