Max has a hard time with the concept of love and monogamy. Waking up with a massive hangover, Max is told by his flamboyant boyfriend Rudy that he spent the entire previous evening asking every hot guy he saw to sleep with him, before landing on a stud in leather, who emerges from Max’s bedroom moments later. Max spends the remainder of the scene attempting to get rid of his drunken hookup, who is rather insistent that Max brings him to the country home that he claimed to own whilst obnoxiously drunk.
From what I’ve described so far, Martin Sherman’s play Bent could just as easily be the premise for an episode of Friends. The characters are relatively simple, concerned with day-to-day troubles like work and money, while enjoying love, drinks, and sex. What sets this play’s story apart, however, is that it’s set during the Holocaust. Today, as a gay man in Montreal, Max (played by Christopher Moore) would be dealing with the everyday social problems and discriminations that queer people face. In Nazi Germany, though, Max faces persecution, violence, imprisonment, and death.
The story of Bent is not for the faint of heart. It’s about the Holocaust, but it focuses on the lives and trials of gay men specifically, who were branded with pink triangles (labelling them as sexual offenders) and sent to concentration camps. We follow Max as he loses his home, his friends, and his innocence to the Nazi regime, but manages to find love even within the despair of the concentration camp.
Montreal-based theatre company Altera Vitae’s production of Bent captures the timelessness and importance of such a story, keeping it relevant 70 years after the events it describes occurred, and 30 years after the play first premiered. Although relatively simple, the staging is effective in highlighting the wonderful dialogue and breadth of the play’s main characters. Playing Horst, Max’s love interest inside the camp, Concordia graduate Vance De Waele gives the play’s most memorable performance. Waele’s Horst is in turn serious and comical, and both he and Moore manage to draw the audience into their respective characters’ horrifying reality. Director Carolyn Fe’s vision is rather uninspired, but is sufficient in bringing to life a daunting and heavy subject matter.
Since Bent’s premiere in 1979, the mainstreaming of queer issues in the media has advanced significantly. There is something about the weight of the subject matter, though, as well as the play’s universal message, that is both shocking and humanely truthful. This quality allows the work to speak to today’s audience just as strongly as it would have to an audience in the seventies. As Fe explains, “The play is a powerful statement. [It portrays] an acceptance of self no matter what one is up against. It is the desperate hope of another life and successfully creating it, if only for a moment, in the midst of chaos.”
To some, Bent may seem overly male-dominated and homocentric. You wouldn’t be wrong to draw this conclusion. What Bent sets out to reveal is the hateful acts committed against a particular subgroup, a black stain on queer history that is often reduced to a footnote in comparison to the bigger picture of the Holocaust. Bent reminds us that hate toward a group, no matter how small, is worth remembering, and that expressing one’s true self and finding love is possible even in the unlikeliest of places.
Bent is playing until November 15 at Espace 4001 (4001 Berri). Visit alteravitae.com/bent for more details.