Raleigh Ensemble Players
Through May 3

What else to call them but the ones that got awaythe handful of regional productions down the years I couldn’t catch due to scheduling or travel, but whose impact I kept hearing about for seasons after the final curtain.

The best work our area has ever put on stage is a subject critics regularly revisit in conversations on the theater: You ask, you listen and then debate the merits of what has, over time, become a semi-stable list of usual suspects.

But then, as often as not, someone would mention Raleigh Ensemble Players’ original version of Bent in May 2001, whereupon I’d have to sigh and quietly say, “Yeah, I missed that one. Um, how was it?”

Given the stir created by its run, I would have been shocked if Bent hadn’t been the first choice of company patrons when they were polled in 2006 on the shows they wanted to see again. When REP announced their restaging of the work last July, I made an early note on my calendar: No, I wouldn’t be missing that show twice.

Good theater gives us the opportunity to walk for a while in someone else’s path. Director Glen Matthews and scenic designer Shannon Clark, who collaborated on Bent‘s first iteration, have done that quite literally with Martin Sherman’s Holocaust-era drama. Those who have visited venues like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington will recognize the interactivity here, and the uncomfortable proximity at times with artifacts from the past.

But Matthews and Clark have actually found a way to up the ante significantly in their staging concept. For the Holocaust Museum doesn’t employ actors portraying armed Nazi storm troopers to gruffly herd its guests through exhibits, menacing them along with impatient, single-syllable orders: You! Move! Fair warning: This production does. We are more prodded than escorted, on an odyssey that ultimately takes us from a shabby Berlin apartment to the extermination camp at Bergen-Belsen.

The process of walking another one’s path actually begins before we enter the Gallery Two theater at Artspace. Before the show, the audience is asked to form two lines in the hallway. Then a uniformed captain and two armed guards step into the space. They demand our silence. They review us, one by one. Then they pull individuals out of line and order them into a darkened room: You. Here.

We watch, then soon enough, it is our turn to join them. As we first enter the theater, the captain stands in front of us, ordering us either to the left or the right. Anyone already familiar with the process called “selection,” documented by a host of Holocaust survivors, is aware of the implications of this act. Is it, or something like it, now being performed on us?

We watchand literally followas Max (Ryan Brock) and Rudy (Thomas Porter), two gay Berliners in the 1930s, try to stay ahead of government forces after getting accidentally caught up in the aftermath of a purge. At first it seems the pair are intended to represent what Primo Levi termed “the saved and the drowned”a survivor and one unable to on his own. After seeking (and being denied) shelter with Greta, a gritty gay nightclub owner (a convincing Chris Milner), the pair are forced into the forests, camping while trying to find a way across the border.

Clark’s curtains turn a section of the theater into one of the infamous boxcars used to take undesirables to the German prison camps. We’re crowded onto it, too, by guards who intimidate us as well as the characters in the scene.

We watch the eerie, ghost-like faces of act two’s prisoners, whitened with the rock dust from a mindless, Sisyphean labor camp torturemoving heavy rocks from one pile to another and then back again. The real and unrelenting labor (yes, on real rocks) alienated some in the audience, before fellow prisoner Horst (Sean Brosnahan) struggled to remind Max of their common humanityand shared sexualityfrom 15 feet away, in a desperate attempt to stave off madness and the total loss of hope. It was one of the rawest moments I’ve seen in live theater in some time.

Sherman’s script and this staging both challenge the audience. Bent asks us to walk with its characters, all the way up to death’s door. Not all audience members were willing to go that far; but those who did left the theater with more insight than when they came.

Angels in America, Part II

Theatre in the Park
Through April 27

Is “Perestroika” the stronger of the two plays in Tony Kushner’s epic Angels in America cycle? One thing’s certain: The Theatre in the Park production of it clearly is. True, Part 1, “Millennium Approaches,” has considerable groundwork to lay for the pyrotechnics evinced in Kushner’s closing opusthe main reason it makes no sense to recommend this work to any audience without its predecessor. Without doubt, “Perestroika” is the payoffand Adam Twiss’ notable cast seems fundamentally unleashed here in a way not seen during Part 1.

Start with actor Kenny Gannon’s voracious interpretation, which fully made Roy Cohn his own. Note also the desire, drama and conscience in the relationship between Louis (Matthew-Jason Willis), who has abandoned HIV-positive lover Prior, and Joe (Jesse Gephart), a fast-rising conservative Republican lawyer just beginning to come to grips with his own sexuality. Amy Flynn’s take on Ethel Rosenberg (who Cohn helped send to the electric chair, and whose ghost returns to gloat over his misfortune) is delectably tart up until the moving, humanizing moment she helps Louis say Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, over Cohn’s body. Flynn’s other supporting role brings life to Joe’s prim mother, a woman with unlikely resources to confront the disasters of modernity. As Joe’s wife, Harper, Andrea Twiss believably navigates the irrationality of her (and our) world.

Eric Carl’s work as Prior is an achievement, a character who draws on deep resources when confronting the absurd, on earth and other places. Lynda Clark’s portrayal as the Angel of America, ably abetted by sound designer Will Mikes, combines strength with the vulnerability of an abandoned creation.

Kushner’s benediction is something of a socio-political traveler’s advisory: When the order is breaking down in societies, sometimes the barriers are breaking down as well. Reach across, he seems to say. Tell the truth. And then, rebuild the worldonly better this time, please.

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