Chicago Theatre Review
A Descent Into Hell
Bent – The Other Theatre Company
In Weimar Republic Berlin, following the Night of the Long Knives and the Nazi incursion, Max, a gay young man who’s shut his eyes to the horror developing in Germany, wakes up to find his world collapsing. After a night of drunken debauchery, Max learns that Wolf, the hot, blond young trick he’s brought home, is actually a Stormtrooper. Their intended three-way with Max’s live-in boyfriend Rudy is interrupted by two soldiers who burst into their tiny apartment and slit Wolf’s throat. Max and Rudy flee their home, seeking refuge anywhere they can. Greta, a straight, crossdressing nightclub entertainer, offers the couple money and advises them to leave Berlin at once. When his gay, but discreet, Uncle Freddie arranges for Max’s escape, he’s turned down because Max refuses to leave Rudy behind. The two men are captured by the Schutzstaffel and herded into a boxcar. At this time they realize with horror that they’re being transported to the Dachau death camps. What lies ahead is a slow, agonizing descent into hell.
While soldiers are torturing and beating Rudy to death, Horst, another gay young prisoner, quietly advises Max about what he must do in order to survive. When the two men are reunited at the concentration camp, Max has claimed to be a Jew. Wearing the yellow Star of David, instead of the pink triangle that’s branded on all queers, Max believes he’s bought himself a chance for surviving the Holocaust. Because, as a Jew, he’s considered at least a notch higher than a homosexual, Max negotiates for a somewhat better job for Horst and himself. Like the Myth of Sisyphus, the men are forced to pointlessly carry heavy rocks, piled at one end of the yard, to an area at the other end. When the rocks have all been moved they must carry them all back again. The two men suffer this backbreaking activity for 14 hours a day, everyday, rain or shine. As their relationship develops in silence and anonymity, never being allowed to look at or touch each other, Max and Horst grow from a comforting friendship to a deep, profound love. Together they find the courage necessary to survive this inescapable nightmare.
In 1979 Martin Sherman, whose works often deal with minority discrimination, achieved much-deserved acclaim with the debut of his Pulitzer Prize and Tony nominated drama. In 1997 he adapted his play for the highly acclaimed film version, which starred Clive Owen, Ian McKellen and Mick Jagger. Written partially in response to New York’s Stonewall uprising, Mr. Sherman’s groundbreaking work hasn’t aged as well as other plays from that time period. It still packs a punch, however, particularly the second act; but much of Act I, while based on historical fact, feels a little stilted and melodramatic today. Act II, on the other hand is raw and gut-wrenching. A bit of unexpected peace, however, begins to settle into the play at this point, created by the repetitive dialogue and labor by these two men. Their love grows and a happy ending almost seems eminent. Then it hits you: there’s no way out. All the pain, humiliation and horrific punishment inflicted upon an entire population, represented here by Max and Horst, for something over which they have no control, is absolutely unthinkable. The Nazi regime’s sadistic cruelty that was inflicted upon gay men is difficult to witness and can never be excused. Indeed, it was Sherman’s play that, for most individuals, exposed this untold chapter in history. For that reason, it deserves to be seen so that we never forget.
Partially because of script demands, Keira Fromm’s production feels choppy and uncertain of its trajectory at the beginning. Anyone unfamiliar with this play might think they’re going to see a comic drama, but perhaps that contrast with what’s about to come serves to emphasize the shockingly abhorrent dramatic second act. Still, Act I is episodic and doesn’t flow as well as Act II. Possibly this is due to so many shifts in locale; but scenes seem to end, yet carry on in the semidarkness, while scenery is rearranged. It’s like a cinematic fade that’s unsure of itself. Because Act II is set in one location, the concentration camp, Ms. Fromm succeeds much better in building the tension and terror that mounts from beginning to end.
Nik Kourtis plays Max throughout Act I like a good-looking, self-entitled 21st century frat boy. Always drunk, oblivious to the damage he creates, Max comes off less sympathetic than the character Sherman perhaps intended. When we reach the second act, his irritating smugness continues, but eventually a change takes place. It’s at this time that we meet Alex Weisman’s sensitively portrayed Horst. It’s in their shared scenes, during which their relationship sparks, that Max and Horst develop into a unit, becoming greater than anything the Nazi’s can ever hope to quell. It’s at this point that the production begins to live. Max becomes someone else, a caring person with whom audiences can identify. It’s primarily because Mr. Weisman plays Horst with such honesty, displaying so many layers, that the audience is able to care. It also brings out the best in Mr. Kourtis, and it speaks highly of their chemistry together that these two actors are able to create such a realistic, deeply moving connection.
Fine work is turned in by Michael Carey as Wolf, Stephen Rader as Uncle Freddie and Joe Bianco as Greta. Their scenes are short and, as such, aren’t given as much time to develop. However, given their single scene, each actor brings to the stage a fully realized person. In addition, Chris Rickett and Matt Pratt are both chilling as a Nazi officer and prison guard. Will Von Vogt’s Rudy, however, is another story. Mr. Van Vogt is suppose to be a dancer, but doesn’t really look or move like someone who’s trained for the ballet or the chorus line. His Rudy babbles endlessly, is anal retentive about all kinds of mindless minutia and is generally annoying. It raises the question: what would attract Max to this young man? It’s not clear if this is an example of unfortunate casting or poor direction, but Rudy’s death, although violent and difficult to witness, just doesn’t hit home the way it should.
The Other Theatre Company’s second production is worth seeing because this is a group dedicated to telling stories of those who have been marginalized in history. It’s an important production, if only for Alex Weisman’s stirring performance. His portrayal of a young man attempting, against all odds, to rise above the barbarous treatment by the Third Reich is heartbreaking and astonishing. This play also acknowledges an historically important event that should be experienced, if to remind us of the inexplicable inhumanity of which people are capable. This play depicts a descent into hell which, hopefully, will never be repeated.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 27-July 26 by The Other Theatre Company at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-528-9696 or by going to www.buzzonstage.com/theatres/other-theatre-company.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.