Every day that passes, stories are being lost. Sometimes, at the time, we might not know how important those stories might be, and sometimes, we might be oppressing those stories. While some might feel that we’ve heard enough about World War II and the Nazi Final Solution, the drama “Bent,” now at the Mark Taper Forum, shows us just how untrue that is. When This production, if it were a movie, might be rated R for male nudity and yet for blood and violence it remains understated and that serves to provide an elegant voice of despair.
The original West End production in 1979 starred Ian McKellen. Richard Gere was in the 1980 Broadway version. A lot has happened in 25 years. In 2000, a documentary was made about the personal experiences of five gay men and one lesbian, “Paragraph 175.” The movie’s title refers to the paragraph in the penal code which had outlawed sodomy since 1871. Between 1933 and 1945, about 100,000 men were arrested for sodomy and of those about 4,000 survived.
Since the 1980s, we’ve had the horror story of Matthew Shepard in 1998. That was also made into a play, “The Laramie Project” that the director of this production,Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project, wrote and produced in 2001.
The fight for gay marriage in the U.S. began as early as 1975 with Richard Adams marrying Australian citizen Anthony Corbett “Tony” Sullivan, and filing a lawsuit in 1982 to have the marriage recognized by the INS. Now gay marriage has become a right supported by the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Bent” begins deceptively. We might be in a stylish 1930s celebration of manners and lifestyles of the under employed. Two men who are long time lovers, living together in Berlin when it might have been scandalous for heterosexual couples to do so are going about their daily morning ritual. One, Max (Patrick Heusinger), has obviously overindulged and behaved outrageously. He believes this is why his lover, Rudy (Andy Mientus), is a bit stand-offish.
And yet there’s another man, a stranger. He’s naked. If you’re unaccustomed to full frontal male nudity, this show is not for you. He and He has brought back a ruggedly handsome Sturmabteilung man who believes that Max is rich and will take him to the country. Max’s dancer lover, Rudy, gently snarks. Max does have a certain air of indulged decadence.
Yet the set suggests a certain amount of decay. The black wood of the floors of the raised stage has areas that are worn and dull. We can see the space below as if for some reason the underground supports are important.
The stranger’s disappointment and the strained tension between Max and Rudy doesn’t last. The strange man’s disappointment turns to despair. The Strumabteilung was an original paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party that provided protection for Nazi rallies and assemblies, but in 1934, Adolf Hitler ordered a purge from the Nazi Party: Night of Long Knives. The SS arrive at the apartment and kill the Strumabteilung and Max and Rudy go into hiding.
This is the time of “Cabaret” and there’s a Cabaret-esque segment, but things get less musical and campy as times become more desperate.
Love on the run isn’t pretty. Now the raised stage is bare and Max and Rudy hide beneath the stage. They are on the outskirts of a tent city of poor people. They’ve run from city to city. Max doesn’t tell Rudy that he could escape; his gay uncle Freddie (Ray Baker), has arranged one ticket to Amsterdam. Max refuses to leave Rudy behind. Freddie angrily tells Max that he should have been more discreet–confined his desires and carnal escapades to rent boys, found and easily discarded. Max returns to Rudy who has earned money through construction work.
On this particular evening though, they are captured and sent to a camp. Max betrays Rudy as a matter of survival. In the camp, Max would rather be identified as a Jew and wear a yellow star than admit he is a homosexual and wear a pink triangle because he was told by Horst (Charlie Hofheimer) that the gays are the lowest in the hierarchy.
We know to precious little about the gay men who lived and died in the concentration camps. Gad Beck who died in 2012 was the last known gay Holocaust survivor.
Martin Sherman doesn’t mean to shock us. The staging by Moisés Kaufman has an understated elegance. More than sexual orientation and the horror of the Holocaust, this play is about personal truth and love. Sherman could have made things gorier from what I’ve read about the worst deaths and torture of gay prisoners.
Kaufman focuses on the moral horror of betrayal in Rudy’s fate. Because the focus is on one man’s inner struggle between his survival instincts and his desire for love, this isn’t really about which was worse, being a Jew or being a gay man, but about something that should have never happened then and shouldn’t happen now.
With the recent Supreme Court decision in favor of gay marriage, we can appreciate how drastically the world has changed since the 1930s and 1940s. Yet with hate crimes against gays, we can also see how far we have to go.
- Holocaust Encyclopedia: Persecution of Homosexuals in the Third Reich
- Holocaust Encyclopedia: Classification System in Nazi Concentration Camps
- Slate: Remember Gay Victims of the Holocaust
- Holocaust Encyclopedia: Gad Beck
- The Jerusalem Post: Gad Beck obituary
This production of “Bent” serves as a somber reminder of a shameful past–one that reaches past the savagery of Nazi Germany, and also reminds us how sometimes it takes great courage just to love.
“Bent” continues until August 23 at the Mark Taper Forum at the Music Center
- 135 N. Grand Ave. at Temple St., Downtown, L.A., CA 90012
Performance Days and Times:
• Tuesday through Friday at 8 p.m. • Saturday at 2:30 and 8 p.m.
• Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m.
• No performance on Mondays.
Ticket prices: $25 – $85
(Ticket prices are subject to change.)
Tickets are available
• Online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
• By calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at 213.628.2772
• In person at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Music Center