Offering a remarkable evening of theater, Bent is a groundbreaking play about persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany that opened Sunday, July 26, at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. It shows how, in the face of terrible times, people manage to find strength and love from each other. At times funny, at times heartbreaking, the show is well worth seeing, albeit hard to watch when it comes to Nazi brutality and intolerance.
Bent starts in roughly the same time period as Cabaret, with a vibrant Weimar republic nightlife fueled by alcohol, cocaine and casual sex. Bent was ahead of its time and, in many ways, the gay life in Germany depicted at the play’s onset was being played out in the bathhouses and clubs of New York and San Francisco when the show debuted in 1979. In Germany, the Nazis forced changes; shortly after the play debuted, AIDS forced changes. In both periods, homosexuals feared life in the open.
Written by Martin Sherman, Bent hit Broadway ahead of La Cage aux Folles, Angels in America, The Normal Heart and other productions that depicted gay life. But the fact that the lead characters are homosexuals – who were actually treated worse than the Jews by the Nazis – has relegated the play to smaller theaters and university theatrical productions. The Taper production is the first major U.S. revival of Bent.
Bent opens at the apartment shared by lovers Rudy (Andy Mientus), a dancer, and Max (Patrick Heusinger), a perpetual wheeler/dealer. Max wakes with a hangover and nude male (Tom Berklund) he cannot remember meeting. The male turns out to be an SA Stormtrooper, who is soon arrested by SS thugs who barge into the flat. This Nazi purge of homosexuals, including those in the party’s paramilitary Brownshirts, was eventually known historically as the “Night of the Long Knives.“
Rudy and Max flee and go see Greta, a drag queen nightclub owner. Greta, played by Scissor Sisters lead singer Jake Shears, entertains the audience with a song, Streets of Berlin, before joining them backstage. As Greta strips off her makeup and transforms back to a married man with children, she/he cautions them that the good times are over. He also notes that his marriage is the cover that will save him from the Nazi persecution of homosexuals.
Max and Rudy spend the next two years on the run, moving from town to town and camping out in the woods. Eventually, their luck runs out and Rudy is beaten to death while the
y are on a train to Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp. Horst (Charlie Hofheimer), a wise camp veteran, is also on the train and offers Max advice and friendship.
The second act takes place in the yards at Dachau, where the homosexuals are given pink triangles that label them as “worse than Jews.” Max schemes and pretends to be Jewish to get a yellow star on his uniform and better treatment. The remainder of the play is about Max and Horst working together moving rocks, forming a friendship and ultimately falling in love under the eyes of cruel, sadistic Nazi guards.
The L.A. production is directed by Moisés Kaufman (The Laramie Project), who relates to the project personally. He is a child of a Holocaust survivor and a homosexual. Kaufman’s version takes advantage of the Mark Taper layout to add drama to the Nazi presence/menace.
The Bent ensemble’s performances enhance the remarkable theater offering at the Mark Taper Forum, which will be there until August 23, 2015. Heusinger is excellent from his awakening to a stranger in bed to his awakening to the new realities of Germany to awakening to companionship in Dachau. Hofheimer is well cast as Horst, although he is seems a little too at ease in the camp at first. Their interaction is believable and had people in the audience crying. Shears’ role is brief but, in his first professional production, was credible – as both the singer he has been in Scissor Sisters and, stripped of makeup, as the man telling his friends that times are changing.
Written and directed by Dyanne Weiss
Performance July 26, 2015
Center Theatre Group:
Los Angeles Times: ‘Bent’ at Mark Taper lets defiant love shine amid the Holocaust
The Advocate: Jake Shears Makes His Theatrical Debut in Tony-Nominated Play Bent
Bent program: How “Bent” Made Gay History
Photos by Craig Schwartz, courtesy of Center Theatre Group