Martin Sherman's Bent opened on Broadway in 1979, it helped make
a star of its young lead, Richard Gere. More than that, it served as a
reminder of a forgotten chapter in history. The extermination of Jews
in German and Polish concentration camps during World War II is well documented,
but the mass extermination of other minority groups - Slavs, gypsies and
homosexuals among others - is less well known.
production captures the essence of Bent's psychological dynamics,
working off a well-chosen cast and an incredible work of artistry. The
cast plays up power differentials between character roles, revealing how
boundaries shift between the straight and gay worlds, and how there is
no clear-cut explanation for the violence which occurs during WWII in
Germany. Through such heed to subtlety, Bent illuminates the complexity
of the human psyche with all its contradictions and subconscious impulses.
Love in The Ruins
Nearly two decades after Martin Sherman blasted Broadway theatergoers' minds and viscera with his play about queers in the Holocaust, director Reid Davis brings Bent to the stage once again. As in the original Sherman production, Davis' message rings loud: While we're far removed from the time of the horrors of the Nazis' sexual and ethnic cleansing campaigns, tactics for controlling -- even erasing -- people that the heterosexual norm identifies as abnormal still exist today.
The central character, Max (interestingly played by a racially ambiguous, handsome Thomas Nieto), masquerades as a baron and bags pretty Aryan boys. But he soon finds himself in Dachau sporting prison stripes, tattoo No. 71835, and a star -- first yellow (for Jew), later pink (for queer). Max's skill at masquerading at first gets him that less stigmatized yellow star; he tells his love-interest Horst (Jeff Crockett) that the Nazis proclaimed him but a Jew only after they watched him penetrate a dead 12-year-old girl. Horst reminds him, "You're not a Jew -- you're a fucking queer"; but we get a glimmer of how Max has internalized the regime's controlling gaze, until his very soul and self have been mutilated.
Ultimately, Max comes into a powerful sense of self that extends beyond his confines as he embraces and celebrates his queer self. And while the play can only end tragically, Max and Horst's intimacy, against all odds, breathes a certain hope into the air. On one occasion, they break out of the "never know, never watch" prison-camp modus operandi and make love -- separated from each other -- through a rhythmic syncopation and verbal exchange of vividly described details ("I feel your mouth ... your cock") that transgress their oppressive environs.
Director Davis, helped by some excellent acting and clever lighting (which illustrates the Nazis' penetrating gaze), portrays a world where those persecuting are the actual misfits and perverts. The second half needs some slimming down, and Nieto's performance is sometimes too hard and staccato for us to believe in his transformations, but this production's overall polish eclipses its faults. It's worth mentioning, too, George Maguire's small but hugely moving performance as Max's queer Uncle Fredie, who at the flick of an eyebrow and turn of a hand shows deep conflicts between his fear of coming out and being caught.
As the play reached its tragic denouement, the audience in this South Berkeley theater could hear a police siren buzz just outside the hall. Of course the PD's red-n-white whirls aren't needed to drive home this smartly orchestrated production's message, that concentration-camp towers still loom, and that today's sexual and ethnic outlaws share more with Bent's heroes than we might like to imagine.
Gay-themed theater, already a Bay Area perennial, blossoms in June during Gay Pride month. Among the most promising entries thus far are the local debut of the international hit Burning Blue, and the Shotgun Players' production of Martin Sherman's Bent. Blue, written by former naval flier D.M.W. Greer, is the story of four male pilots whose close-knit friendship becomes the target of a homosexual witch hunt conducted by the military brass. (The time is recent, just prior to Clinton's "Don't ask, don't tell" compromise.) A night in a Hong Kong disco sets the probe in motion, although sexuality is merely a catalyst in the drama's keen exploration of love, honor, and brutality. The play, lavished with awards and critical praise, sold out houses in London, Johannesburg, and L.A., and actor Kevin Otto, who starred in the L.A. and Johannesburg shows, reprises his role as Lt. Dan Lynch in the local production, joined by other international cast members and guided by L.A.-London director John T. Hickok. Bent, meanwhile, first opened on Broadway in 1979, where it was greeted with a kind of collective shocked disbelief. It's hard to imagine now, but before gay history had found the kind of audience it has today, Sherman's account of gays being persecuted during the Holocaust and the homoerotic element in the concentration camps was a widely unheard-of war story.