The Oakland Tribune, June 1998
Chad Jones

When 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.

Bent delves into the lives of two gay men imprisoned in Dachau, and, like most stories that survive from this hell, uncovers a wretched fear, alarming inhumanity and inspiring courage.

Berkeley's Shotgun Players, an ambitious 7-year-old theatre company, has chosen to mark Gay Pride Month with a new production of Bent. This is a brave choice. Sherman's nearly 20-year-old drama demands a great deal of its actors and its audience. The subject matter is intensely harrowing and disturbing, but thankfully, the Shotgun Players, under the steady direction of Reid Davis, are up to the challenge.

This is a modest production housed in the intimate confines of the Adeline Street Theatre. Michael Frassinelli's sets are simple and mostly colorless. A few chairs indicate a Berlin apartment, and a wall of electrified barbed wire effectively creates a concentration camp. Likewise, Christine Cilley's costumes are ragged and dirty, with their most noticeable features the stars and triangles that adorn them. Director Davis forgoes a fussy stage in order to focus the attention on the ample human drama.

When the play begins, Max (powerfully performed by Thomas Anthony Nieto) and his lover Rudy (Andrew Alabran) are living the high life in Berlin. Think Cabaret, add more sex and drugs, and you've got the idea. But reality is about to catch up with them in the form of two uniformed Nazi officers who barge into their seedy apartment, guns drawn. It's a harsh new world in Germany, one that does not welcome 'perverts' like Max and Rudy.

Betrayal is everywhere, even down at the local gay club, where the owner, a drag diva called Greta (Randal Wung) is informing on his clients so that he can support his wife and children.

Their lives thrown into chaos, Max and Rudy spend the next two years on the road, ducking the authorities, making sure never to touch or even look at each other in a way that might betray their only crime: being in love. Eventually, the Nazi net ensnares them, and the real horror begins.

Act Two of this two-and-a-half hour drama is set in Dachau, where Max, now separated from Rudy, has befriended fellow prisoner Horst (the superb Jeff Crockett). Knowing that the pink triangle is the lowest of the low among the prisoners, Max has cut a deal with guards to be labeled with a yellow star, the mark of a Jew. Horst wears the triangle, a symbol that the gay rights movement now embraces as a mark of pride - but within the camps it meant being spit upon by guards as well as fellow inmates.

The two men have been assigned the pointless task of moving rocks from one pile to another, and the actors spend the better part of the second act hauling rocks. There's a mesmeric quality to their constant motion across the stage as they attempt to keep one another sane and, against all odds, fall in love.

The dreamlike tone of these scenes is not all nightmarish. Amid brutality and monotony, the men somehow foster their will to survive and actually allow their capacity for love and self-acceptance to grow. This part of the play could get mawkish, and in last year's movie version of the play, it does. But Reid and his able actors underplay the sentimentality and let the power of the story carry the show.

On one level, Bent is about persecution, concentration camps and absolute horror. But on another, ultimately more satisfying level, the drama reveals love at its most elemental. Love, Bent posits, is the only force strong enough to sustain a waning human spirit, even as it spirals toward a tragic end.

The Daily Californian, June 10, 1998
Joanne Sterbentz

...The 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.

Thomas Nieto, as lead role Max, does a fine job in capturing the complexity of his character, which includes both moments of tenderness for his myriad of lovers and burning periods of egotism. The breadth of the play, as I see it, revolves around Max's attempts at physical and psychological survival and the consequential self-loathing. Nieto's skill in opening up Max's emotions - from introverted and hardened to sympathetic and understanding - really makes the play work.

...Above all, the play leads us to question the very creation of memory within time and how specific cultures have responded to fundamental issues of being. Davis notes how our perceptions of queer identity have changed throughout history...Under such mindful direction, the Shotgun Players production speaks to remind us of these ever-relevant issues while awakening our moral consciousness.

SF Weekly, May, 24 1998
Frederick Luis Aldama

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.

SF Weekly, May, 3 1998
Heather Wisner

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.