I wonder what it would have been like to watch “Bent” in a parallel universe where Obergefell v. Hodges went the other way. It’s not an easy play to experience under any circumstances, and Keira Fromm’s production with The Other Theatre Company is a skilled, deliberate bludgeoning that leaves you walking out in a daze. At least in this universe when audiences leave the theater they get to walk out into a world where gay marriage is newly and still exhilaratingly legal. In that parallel universe this play might honestly be too much to handle.
The 1979 play, by Martin Sherman, begins in 1934 Berlin, with lovers Max (Nik Kourtis) and Rudy (Will Von Vogt) squabbling over Max’s having drunkenly brought home another man, Wolf (Michael Carey), to share their bed. This intensely domestic scene is then shattered when Hitler’s SS burst through the door, slitting Wolf’s throat and sending Max and Rudy on the run. Eventually the two are rounded up and sent to Dachau, where Max is able to finagle a gold star instead of a pink triangle, much to the chagrin of fellow prisoner Horst (Alex Weisman). Pink triangles, you see, were considered the lowest of the low, even among other prisoners.
Kourtis’ performance embraces Max as a hustler, a brigand and a jerk. He is a pretty bad dude, beaten down by a world that is so much worse. The play’s second act is almost entirely a tit-for-tat between Kourtis and Weisman’s proud, defiant Horst. There are flashes of humor, and skeins of longing. Neither actor shies away from their character’s faults; they grant them a welcome degree of humanity.
The show is performed at Strawdog Theatre, and Michael Johannsen’s set makes much hay from that space’s barren, industrial feel, wreathing it in barbed wire. Fromm’s direction, like its surroundings, is careful and economical, accomplishing much using small movements and stillness. These are characters—Max and Horst especially—who have been robbed of action, whose every move is watched under threat of death. As such, many big, booming moments are rendered in near tableau, emotions arcing across an actor’s face. It’s electric. (Alex Huntsberger)
The Other Theatre Company at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 North Broadway, theothertheatrecompany.com, $15. Through July 26.