BWW Review: Hollywood Stage Company Slays Hollywood Blvd with Maiden Production of BENT
Part of what I like most about reviewing LA's intimate theatre scene is being the first to discover new gems before they explode into something big. Enter Hollywood Stage Company, Hollywood Boulevard's newest theatre troupe. On Friday, I had the pleasure of attending the opening night of HSC's (my acronym, not their's) maiden production of Martin Sherman's BENT, a story that revolves around the persecution of gays in Nazi Germany.
As I walked down the cannabis scented Hollywood Walk of Fame, I discovered that the theatre was really easy to find - it was the building that had world famous drag queen Laganja Estranja voguing in the window (Estranja, real name Jay Evan Jackson, actually served as the production's choreographer). I entered the lobby and immediately exited 2017 Los Angeles, and stepped into a 1930's Berlin nightclub...
Hollywood Stage Company fully committed to a bold choice creating an immersive pre-show "party scene" in the theatre's lobby before curtain. Set in Greta's Nightclub (an actual setting in the play), the party scene features 1930's period music, a bar (yes, they serve alcohol!), menus and signage auf Deutsch, and even costumed atmospheric actors and dancers. Inside the house, as you're taking your seat, you'll find the club's owner, drag queen Greta (played by HSC Artistic Director Robert Hayman), hosting a remarkably well-choreographed dance show. This "party" gives the audience insight into the moments immediately before the start of the first act.
The pre-show experience was remarkably well executed and plunged the audience straight into 1930's Berlin. HSC owned their intimate space and used it strongly to their advantage. The theatre is not close to the size of the Mark Taper Forum (where BENT was produced by Center Theatre Group about a year and half ago), but HSC avoided the trap of trying to mount a massive scale production, and instead decided to literally play to their intimate audience. The result was a personalized, fun, and magical introduction to the world of BENT - it was a great way to the start the night. Theatre managers should attend HSC's BENT and take notes; this is how you effectively do audience engagement.
How Was It?
The rest of the production lived up to the high expectations set by the pre-show experience. The story follows Max (Lior Burlin), a promiscuous gay man in Nazi Germany, as he flees Berlin from the Nazis, and is ultimately thrown into a concentration camp. Max is initially accompanied by his boyfriend, Rudy (Connor Pratt), and then meets another lover in his concentration camp, Horst (Blaze Robert Stow). Max lies about his sexuality, and wears a Jewish star instead of a pink triangle, since homosexuals are treated worst in camp than Jews.
Director Robert Hayman made very clear gritty choices with the production design. Color pallets consisted mainly of drab browns and greys. The set was minimal, largely due to the small space, but the lack of pieces didn't draw attention to itself. The audience was bombarded with many well-placed cacophonic sound cues that struck tense chords.
Lior Burlin (Max), Connor Pratt (Rudy), and Blaze Robert Stow (Horst) were standouts. All three actors employed a very film-esque naturalistic and believable style of acting and worked well off each other. It was really easy to forget that I was seeing a play when watching them perform. They were excellent choices to lead the show.
Also worth mentioning is Sean Lee (Nazi Captain). Avoiding spoilers as much as I can...
Lee's character is the catalyst for the most emotional moment of the play. As soon as he enters it's clear that tragedy is imminent, he is in complete control, and he is going to choose a life-altering path for Sam. Lee masterfully milks the suspense of the scene and leaves the audience on the edge of their seats hanging onto his every word. Interestingly, prior to becoming an actor, Lee served in the United States Marine Corps and was deployed to Iraq as Linguist. Perhaps that is where the believability of his character comes from.
The only opportunity for improvement I saw was in the very final moments. What should have been the incredibly emotional cherry on top of the production fell a little flat, compared to the rest of the evening. The beats seemed choppy and not strongly enough motivated, but with the talent of the actors and director, it seems like an easy fix.
Hollywood Stage Company is a troupe to keep an eye on. Their theatre is occupying prime real estate just a few blocks from the Pantages on the tourist-laden Hollywood Boulevard. Longtime writer, director, actor, producer and photographer Robert Hayman, and noted singer, actress and writer Rachel Ewy are the creative duo behind the launch of HSC. This solid maiden production demonstrated unyielding creative potential, and I expect to see big things to come from this emerging company.
Who Should See It
Anyone who is a fan of Martin Sherman's BENT will love HSC's interpretation of this timely masterpiece. I also recommend this to anybody who enjoys WWII period pieces, plays with LGBTQ themes, or just a good love story.
There is full frontal nudity, violence, some blood, and violent deaths, so this probably isn't a good play to take the kids to.
How to See It
BENT runs from Jan 6th through Jan 29th, with evening shows on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and matinees on Sundays. Tickets are $25. To purchase tickets, visit hollywoodstagecompany.tix.com
A Little More About Hollywood Stage Company
Longtime writer, director, actor, producer and photographer Robert Hayman, and noted singer, actress and writer Rachel Ewy are the creative duo behind the launch of this new theatre. Hayman serves as Artistic Director and Ewy is Producing Director. Ewy hails from New York, where she previously made a living in corporate marketing and public relations. She seems to have a pretty rock solid business background, which leads me to suspect that their endeavor has a better chance of success than most.
Los Angeles City Councilmember Mitch O'Farrell has been a driving force supporting HSC. O'Farrell, who was actually a cruise ship dancer prior to entering public service, has long been a proponent of the arts in the city and strong supporter of small businesses. Last June, the veteran councilmember announced his "open for business" initiative, which sought to streamline city permit processes and make starting a small business easier. O'Farrell's helped get Hayman and Ewy their prime real estate on Hollywood Boulevard, and they are grateful for all the support O'Farrell's office has given them in starting up their troupe.
"Live theater creates vibrant communities and positively contributes to the local economy," said O'Farrell. "I am pleased to partner with the Hollywood Stage Company and help them bring their work to this part of my district."
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