Arts & Culture
'Bent' plumbs Nazi Germany's pink triangulation
Published: July 25, 2012
In 1979, when Bent premiered in a London production starring Ian McKellen, homosexuality was still actively persecuted and prosecuted as a sin and crime. Gays and lesbians were still invisible in plays, films, and public life. Though the horrors of the Holocaust were beginning to haunt the popular imagination (Anne Frank's Diary was widely read, but Schindler's List would not be released until 1993), few were aware that gay men had been special targets of Nazi cruelty. Forced to wear pink triangles and deported to concentration camps, thousands perished. It was not until 2005 that a memorial proclamation by the European Parliament recognized homosexuals, along with Jews, Roma, and Slavs, as victims of the Third Reich's obsession with Aryan purity.
Bent was staged in San Antonio in 1991, in a powerful production at Our Lady of the Lake University by the 24th Street Experiment. Its revival now by the Proxy Theatre, to conclude the troupe's galvanic inaugural season, comes at a time when gays serve openly in the military and six states recognize same-sex marriage. Despite the pernicious persistence of homophobia, Bent today, when queers on stage are no longer a novelty, seems less exotic, more the ordeal of a boy next door. Chelsea Taylor directs Martin Sherman's play as the story of a hedonist who discovers love in Dachau. As the work's central figure, Max, the versatile Rodman Bolek commands a wide emotional arc. The production's sadistic Nazis are a bit cartoonish, but Robert J. Ferrelli stands out in a cameo as Max's Uncle Freddie, a man who has learned to stay alive by staying in the closet.
In the first act, set in Berlin in 1937, Max lives for pleasure and finds it in the city's nightclubs, with alcohol, cocaine, and anonymous sex. When he brings home the boyfriend of a high Nazi official, things suddenly turn ugly, and he and his roommate Rudy (Redding Baker) are forced into hiding. Max is eventually arrested and sent to a concentration camp, where he bonds with another inmate, Horst (Richard David Anthony). If the first act of Bent echoes Cabaret, the second, in which Max and Horst are forced to perform the Sisyphean task of hauling rocks back and forth to no purpose, is Samuel Beckett. Some of the production's most impressive acting occurs when Max and Horst, forbidden by vicious guards from touching or talking, make virtual love through whispered exchanges. However, once Sherman establishes the premises of their ordeal in Dachau, the drama begins to drag. The strength of the play comes not from any memorable lines but from an exploration of human behavior in extremis. Max is a resourceful fellow adept at cajoling, bribing, and hustling in order to survive in an environment in which living sometimes seems the least attractive option.
Making effective use of its new black-box home at the Overtime Theatre, Proxy offers an unusually intimate experience of revulsion and redemption. As the story proceeds, barbed wire is increasingly strung across the space dividing actors from audience, creating a certain ambiguity over just who is incarcerated. Bent derives its title from Max's anecdote about a grotesque action he performs for the prurience of leering Nazis. "He's a bit bent," they say, but spare his life. Proxy Theatre offers a cogent lesson in when to bend and when to snap.
By Martin Sherman
Directed by Chelsea Taylor
The Overtime Center for the Arts
Through Aug 4