BWW Review: Readers Theatre Series: BENT at The 5 & Dime
I've come to learn that The 5 & Dime doesn't believe in producing comedies. I had an inkling that was the case, but after sitting in on their Readers Theatre edition of Martin Sherman's BENT, I'm convinced. The board at The 5 & Dime has chosen an eclectic, emotive, provocative season for their rookie year as a non-nomadic theatre (extra-long way of saying they have a permanent space after years of not having one, but that seemed just as long so I'm rolling with the former). As a part of their Readers Theatre Series, BENT ran for 3 readings only this past weekend, the second show performed this way (following January's SKIN OF OUR TEETH). Readers Theatre, for those unaware, is a minimally staged reading of a play or musical. Typically, the cast is not in costume, nor is there a set. Scripts are held, the movement is minimal, and a narrator reads important stage directions throughout the performance. While I read BENT in college, I had not seen it executed on stage, and was rocked by the emotions the cast and crew were able to draw from an audience who is given so little visual support to accompany the story.
I'm not going to dive into a plot breakdown for a couple reasons: 1. I fully believe my attempts to share the storyline with you would water down the content of Sherman's work, and 2. I believe you should all at least read this play for your own growth and progression. 3. At the time of its original production, the cast and crew were not permitted to discuss the content of the show, as they wanted an unsuspecting audience. The synopsis? Max, a gay man living in 1930's Berlin, is arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Dachau concentration camp. The story is his personal journey: what he gains, loses, and learns. It's heartbreaking. It's not an uplifting or empowering story. But it's based in facts. Gay men in the 1930's were imprisoned, labeled with pink triangles, abused, and many were killed. If this seems like "forever ago" and that "things like this don't happen anymore", cast member Robert White (who is also the Vice President of Development for the Museum of Science and History), spoke to the audience briefly before the reading, reminding us of the tragedy at PULSE Nightclub in June of 2016, as well as the horrible atrocities being committed in Czechnya right now (Read more about that here).
BENT is important because it exposed after its publication in 1979, the underlying, unspoken genocide of homosexual men during WWII. Up until its publication and production, much of the world was unaware that over 100,000 homosexual men were arrested between 1933-1945; up to 15,000 of whom were sent to concentration camps. BENT is important because even though it seems like we are progressing, the dialogue reminds us that homosexual individuals today are often not considered "whole" human beings, and that's not okay. BENT is important because when the first act concluded, it was impossible to get up from your seat and not feel every feeling imaginable all at once. My privilege was showing. I was uncomfortable in the best way possible. I've driven by PULSE a few times this year, once even stopping to roll down the windows and blast DEAR EVAN HANSEN's anthemic "You Will Be Found" in the parking lot. Yet I don't live in fear of what happened at PULSE, or what's happening in Chechnya, or what happened in 1930's Germany ever happening to me: I am a white, married woman, living on a cul-de-sac in suburban Mandarin, Jacksonville, Florida. I wept for PULSE, and still do - but it's not my story.
BENT doesn't request the audience's permission to turn your heart upside down. It forcefully attacks your places of comfort in exchange for a meaningful conversation, for provoking consideration, for basic human empathy. Director Amy Canning acknowledges that she is asking the audience to "analyze your present and step into the educated future of pro-action". She phenomenally led this performance group in production. To speak on the heart of this cast: what a band of talented, emotive, honest performers. Chris Watson played the lead role of Max, hardly ever leaving the stage. While scripts are used during Readers Theatre, it appeared Chris rarely needed his, bringing a character to life that you are never really quite sure of, until the end. Max is complicated, rough, not exactly likable. But somehow, by the end, I was on his side. Joshua Taylor, a founding member and artistic board member at The 5 & Dime, took on the role of Rudy, effectively breaking the hearts of everyone in the audience by the end of Act I. He read with clarity, precision, a hint of playfulness. Rudy is precious and endearing, co-dependent but sassy. Joshua was a wonderful fit for this part. The entire cast is riddled with talent, taking this intense story and bringing it up close and personal for a (mostly) unsuspecting audience, however it was the blithe, endearing performance of Christopher Farrell as Horst that captivated me throughout the second act. Have you had the privilege of seeing Idina as Elpheba or Ben as Evan Hansen? Have you sat in the room with an actor who originated the role, defined a character so purely that you were convinced they were one and the same? Farrell brought me there. Horst will always be Christopher Farrell for me now. AND IT WAS ONLY A READING! Remember: no costumes, minimal movement and staging...but still completely enrapturing.
Is Readers Theatre important? Sometimes it's the best way to give a new show legs: hearing actors voice characters versus trying to create them in our own minds as we read. Yet, there's something to be said about taking a powerfully stirring piece like BENT, and giving the audience something to think about, to talk about, to learn and grow from. It wasn't perfect. For one, the script isn't perfect. The character development in the script is not perfect. Sherman didn't write a perfect show. The cast wasn't flawless. There were moments that were missed, as reading from a script will inevitably produce less than true moments at times. Scoop up a copy today. Let yourself be uncomfortable, sad, angry. And then don't miss The 5 & Dime's next production...THE CALL by Tanya Barfield opens August 11th, and no, it's not a comedy...but it's one that you'll want to talk about after.