Nightclubs, Nazis, and Naked/Half Naked men: ~sigh~ How can one be expected to reconcile the appearance of such a wicked presence betwixt two things of such glory? (As long as the likes of so-called masculine figures of Donald Trump and/or a one Mister Bill Cosby are not the subjects of the latter portion of said triptych that is…) Really, how can one even laugh at portions of it (though we’ll not disclose which ones—naughty or otherwise). Playwright Martin Sherman divines the answer to this and any and all other arbitrary associations in his classic and compelling work Bent.
Set in Germany in 1934 it revolves around the lives of Max and Rudy in a more or less boy loves boy, boy meets other boy in a club while still in love with boy #1, boy gets sloshed and screws other boy to assumedly enhance love with original boy all ending in a series of moot points in that boy who-would-be-bi-amorous is too schockered to even recollect bedding boy #3 (to the point of musing, “I wonder what it was like.”) Meantime, bi-amorous boy has bewildered boy #1 with his bombastic behavior and has ultimately and unwittingly invited the SS to breach the threshold of his very domicile as no background checks were ever made on boy #3—as to his exact identity. (But back in 1930s Germany it was never really an option to Google someone pre-diddle. Though Max’s penchant for calling boy #3 aka Wolf ‘my own little Storm Trooper’ had certain attentions been paid, might have perked certain suspicions!)
And it is here that the chicanery doesn’t commence but all crisis breaks loose as, after their post-raid-pad-break, Max and Rudy discover–via Greta their most fabulous friend in the form of a female impersonator at a lively and local nightclub–that their attempted paramour Wolf (who looks just a trifle bit more equine than pack doggish when naked) has certain ties to the SS. Quite the irony when one considers Hitler’s emphatic ruling against the lifestyle culminating in said raids on the self same night. “I hope he was a good fuck,” Greta muses as well as she accuses. “They’ve passed a law…we’re not allowed to be fluffs anymore!”
Max and Rudy contemplate fleeing to Amsterdam (everything’s still legal there right?—looking forward to the past) but not before Max consults his rich uncle Freddie who urges him to infiltrate humdrum society, get married, then rent male lovers on the side–a practice he has espoused for years—no pun intended.
An interesting yet uninspired a notion in and of itself, Max wants no part of it as it is evident that despite their marked differences, the innocent, comparatively tame, gentle be speckled, plant loving dancer Rudy has a distinct hold on Max. Just as the two men continue to plan their future in a make shift tented refugee camp, the Gestapo descends upon them and slams them into a swift train to Dachau. It is at this juncture that Max’s already so-called ‘bent’ (aka a negative slant on the term homosexual as coined by the Nazis) nature is rendered twisted on top of it all as they seize the more vulnerable Rudy, beat him half to death, but not before gouging his eyes out, and make Max finish the job!
Max thinks to question this at first but is informed by his boxcar mate Horst that it is all in vain and that if he thinks things are bad now, they will get much, much worse should Max not capitulate and follow any and all instruction. In order to ensure utmost survival, and make yet another deal in his perpetual bid to stay above water in his so far wavering subsistence, Max does something unspeakable to garner a yellow star denoting his nonexistent Jewish heritage rather than succumb to wearing a pink triangle to indicate his concrete ‘crime’ of existence in unwitting opposition against the Third Reich. (And if this were not such a horrendous state of affairs, I might feel compelled to make some parallel reference to the colored-concrete shaped marshmallows one might find in a box of Lucky Charms, though at times I wouldn’t put the invention of such a ghastly cereal past a group like the Nazis.)
The remainder of the drama centers around Max and the compromises and sometimes inhumane actions he takes, (and the deals he makes) just to stay alive. Yet it is tempered most incongruously as glimmers of love play upon shadows sinister unspeakableness by way of a burgeoning relationship between himself and Horst: a certain “loving without touching” that seems to transcend all space and time even when both men resemble ghosts in the winter from lifting stones outside all day long next to a pit of dead bodies and an electric fence that buzzes like a banshee!
First produced in 1979 in London’s West End featuring Ian McKellan in the lead role, and in 1980 on Broadway starring Richard Gere, I cannot help but register the discord between the two points in history. Though ever a struggle, the commencement of the Second World War seems to epitomize homosexual Hell and, Stonewall notwithstanding, the epoch of the Disco era waxes more or less celebratory in my mind concerning any and all imminent and interconnected emancipation. Then again looming just left of center, a holocaust of a differing kind in the form of the AIDS epidemic (heretofore, GRID and “The Gay Plague”) would nearly scare America out of its own sexuality such that the timing of the piece’s writing vs. its setting haunts me considerably.
“Life has changed rapidly and radically for gay people in the West since then, (1979) as much or more than it had changed between World War II and the dawn of AIDS,” Rob Weinert-Kendt writes in his illustrious program notes. “What’s easy to forget amid the inexorable march of history is not only how far forward gay liberation has moved but also how little was popularly known in the mid-1970s about gay life under the Nazis. Indeed even the mere fact that they were among the minority groups rounded up and sent to Nazi detention and death camps – alongside Jews, gypsies and communists – was not widely known.”
“It certainly wasn’t known to [playwright] Martin Sherman, a Jewish American who lost family members in the Holocaust. He was in London in the mid-70s working with a small company called the Gay Sweatshop, [who were currently producing] his play Passing by…when he sat in on a rehearsal of Noel Greig and Drew Griffith’s As Time Goes By. ‘It was in three parts, showing gay life in three historical eras: one was in Victorian England, the second was in Germany before the war, and the third was at the time of Stonewall.’ Sherman recounted…The mention of ‘pink triangles’ was, in his recollection, no more than ‘one sentence’ in the play. He asked Griffiths and Greig about it; they said they’d done some research on the subject. Sherman later caught an article in Christopher Street, a gay magazine in New York City, titled, ‘The Men With the Pink Triangles,’ that would further inform the writing of Bent.
In short, the history of this piece vs. the chronology of its writing is immensely fascinating and while I could research and recount it for days; suffice it to say, the production itself does it incalculable justice! From the suspenseful and heartrending writing of Martin Sherman , to the concretely cohesive directing skills of Moises Kaufman the production would already have had a solid leg to stand on. Add to the equation the merry to morbid costumes by Beowulf Boritt to speak nothing of his illustrious and imposing sets, wherein a single backdrop resembling that of a metallic wall out of something like Star Wars fronts as the view from the back of a nightclub, slats in the side of a box car, to that of a miles high electric fence that would rival anything Darth Vader would ever utilize in his tortures and teachings, an additional element of sensory intrigue is adjoined to the mix! Lighting by Justin Townsend beats down in all correct measure to denote time of day, season, temperature, and, at the same time perfectly shadow each and every austere angle in any given Nazi’s face, add a slight pallor to a poor, sick Horst’s complexion, and beautify every man who deserves it! (Which is pretty much all of them who are NOT Nazi, then again it’s not like any of them need too much help to begin with in that department… Then again, if you’ve got it, use it anyway I say!!!) Lastly, the moving lighted slats in the speeding box car render the entire set moveable as we travel with the cast on their way to Dachau (whether we want to go or not…) Sound design my Cricket S. Myers is some of the most eerie I have ever beheld as we are subject to the echoed marching and bellows of any and all lurking Nazis as the lights come up on act II to that of the fence—the fence that Godawful electric fence that increases in harpy-like squawking precision up to the plays more heartrending end!
As to the acting, despite the earthly to hellish subject matter of the piece itself, the performance of it is simply divine! Patrick Heusinger as Max is tormented, yet tender in all the right places. Andy Mientus as Rudy is heartbreakingly vulnerable, sensitive and childlike such that it made his inevitable and drawn out demise all the more unbearable to watch. Tom Berklund as Wolf is mouth-wateringly mimboish (Mimbo = a Seinfeld reference akin to Himbo but focusing on the M for man—and why not, Wolf is the one character brave enough to bear all.) And extending beyond Wolf’s manly characteristics, he is menacing beyond belief once we process his true identity. Jake Shears (in certain circles known as lead singer for Scissor Sisters) is haughty to hot as the somewhat gruffly matter-of-fact Greta. Ray Baker as Uncle Freddie is circumspectly venerable, and Charlie Hofhiemer as Horst is absolutely endearingly fraught, yet fervent, shrewd, yet susceptible in a way that really stays with you long after you’ve left the theatre…
In short, concerning the all characters and their portrayals, collectively and confidentially, I personally, yet pointlessly fell in love with them all…
Bent runs at the Mark Taper Forum until August 23rd.
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