Potentialities of the Human Soul
Good theater is where you find it, and through July 19 at Rising Action Theatre, you'll find it in actor John McGlothlin's stubbly, twitching face, which spends the heartbreaking second act of Bent staring at the ground. Resignation is at war with rage in that face. Imprisoned by the Nazis at Dachau for being gay, McGlothlin's character, Horst, is a scrappy fighter whose pride is screaming at every moment for him to rebel against the indignities of the concentration camp. His acute survivor instincts are always prevailing against it, making him look down, tow the line, become invisible. With few exceptions, McGlothlin is seen only in profile. In the bleak concentration-camp lighting, you could begin to see him as a line drawing; his various poses and furtive looks could be an artist's comprehensive study in suffering.
In the three years that Rising Action has operated in South Florida, few performances like McGlothlin's have graced its stage. And though it will take another season to say for sure, McGlothlin's appearance — surrounded as it is by a solid show with only a handful of minor flaws — could be a sign that this small, struggling company has found its footing.
Bent is a 30-year-old play by Martin Sherman that follows two years in the life of Max (Larry Buzzeo), a gay, bohemian Berliner. (In the play's 1997 movie adaptation, Max is a politician.) The play opens in the small apartment Max shares with Rudy (Michael Perry), a young dancer who performs in one of the queer clubs that proliferated in the Weimar Republic and stayed open late into Hitler's reign. Apparently, he slept on the couch last night: His half of Max's bed is occupied by Wolf (Richard Weinstock), an S.S. Guard who, unbeknownst to him or anyone else in the flat, is a wanted man. The Gestapo tromps in. Then Wolf is no more, and Max and Rudy are on the run.
Perry's fussy interpretation of Rudy lacks both gravitas and believability in the first scene, but he improves steadily as he and Max flail around Germany, seeking safe passage to Holland. Greta (Larry Brooks), the drag-queen owner of the club where Rudy works, will be no help. (Though she is of help to us: Brooks imbues the part with a savage, decadent seediness that grounds us in the sin-choked old Berlin that Hitler meant to purify.) Max's family cannot help either. Shortly, Max and Rudy are hiding out in the woods, trying to stay in love after two years of deprivation and mostly getting on each other's nerves.
They are arrested, and we then confront the first of the play's two famous scenes. On the train to Dachau, Rudy is forced to step on his own eyeglasses. Then he is beaten. Just to prove he's not gay, Max is forced to beat him as well, and Rudy dies. Buzzeo is admirably understated here — almost miraculously so, given that Buzzeo is serving double duty as the play's director — and though I wish he'd give Rudy a harder whack with the truncheon, he bears the scene's staggering emotional load extremely well. I have never seen a man forced by Nazis to murder the love of his life, but I imagine he'd look something like Buzzeo in these moments.
Also on the train is McGlothlin's Horst, shivering in a corner, looking a little like Razzo Rizzo en route to Miami. His earlier advice to Rudy — "Take off your glasses!" — went unheeded, and now he's keeping to himself. Max wishes fervently to erase the terrible thing he's done from his mind, to write it out of existence. Pumping Horst for survival tips, he seems both desperately jittery and incongruously sunny, as though his psychic survival depends on his ability to make all of this seem less serious than it is. He has obviously snapped. Horst has not: He is sane, grim, considering.
At Dachau, Max — who has convinced the guards that he is not queer but Jewish — wears a yellow star. Horst gets the pink triangle. Max is assigned a meaningless job moving rocks from one place to another and back again. Feeling that the work's very inessentiality makes it the least dangerous gig in the camp, he bribes a guard to get Horst stationed alongside him. They fall in love, kind of — a sort of love that might never flourish in the real world between two random and dissimilar people but that grows here because the men need it to. Unable to touch each other, they make love verbally in two-minute intervals when they are forced to stand at attention, side-by-side. During this, the play's second famous scene, McGlothlin fully faces the audience for the first time, and he looks like someone else entirely. The haggard, suspicious countenance we've seen from the side is now broad, calm, and peaceful. Buzzeo too is transformed, though not so dramatically, and together they convince us of a remarkable thing: that two men, facing death by overwork and malnutrition in a Nazi concentration camp, can find a kind of happiness.
If this is true — if this truly is a potentiality of the human soul — then it's well worth knowing about. It doesn't matter a whit that Max and Horst don't survive their affair. It doesn't even matter that Rising Action Theatre's production was produced on the cheap or that some of its performances bear the mark of its lowly, community-theater origins. Thanks to Martin Sherman's words, Buzzeo's restraint, and McGlothlin's remarkable face, Rising Action has finally produced a play you can't afford not to see.
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