August 9, 2015
Famous though it may be, I had never seen Martin Sherman’s 1979 play, “Bent”, in either a stage version or the film. The production currently playing at the Mark Taper Forum was worth the wait. Though not altogether perfect, it is nonetheless a painfully stirring story, difficult to resist, and is some ways, even by today’s liberal standards, shocking at times.
It gives nothing away to say that the story revolves around the homosexual world of 1930s-40s Germany, in particular Berlin. Max (Patrick Heusinger) is a self-absorbed hedonist, and inveterate liar (“I’ll drive you to my country home in my limo”, neither of which exists – and yes, I am paraphrasing), with a much younger live-in lover, Rudy (Andy Mientus). Max claims to live only for the moment, without a hint of love for anyone, Rudy included. When the Nazis begin their campaign to exterminate the hated homosexuals, Max and Rudy are scooped up and loaded onto one of the ubiquitous cattle cars headed to Dachau. Max makes it; Rudy, the far weaker of the two, disappears.
Once in the concentration camp, Max – ever the schemer – manages to get himself labeled as a Jew, a heterosexual one, so that he can wear the yellow star. He explains his reasoning to his fellow inmate, Horst (Charlie Hofheimer), who must wear the pink triangle that identifies him as a homosexual. In the monstrous pecking order of the time, homosexuals are at the bottom rung; Jews are one rung above that and therefore, their lives in the camps are minutely better, making it worth Max’s effort to pretend to be the lesser of the two “bent” evils.
Horst is an intellectual. When he and Max first meet, Max is somehow fascinated by the other man, so different from himself or from anyone in his former world. Max bribes a guard to put Horst on the same work detail to which he was assigned: A ridiculous, back-breaking job which involves moving a pile of rocks from one side of a clearing to the other – and then back again. Back and forth, back and forth, twelve hours a day, day in and day out. Every two hours, they must stop and remain motionless for three minutes; that is the “rest period”.
Over the course of several weeks, it becomes clear that Horst has fallen in love with Max. Max at first wants none of it, but when his defenses fall, the rendering of the love scene is utterly remarkable. I won’t describe it; if you are reading this, I am going to assume that you will someday see “Bent” for yourself. I wish I could say that the ending of the play were as unexpected and moving as this love scene, but for me, it was totally predictable – after all, we do know how most true Holocaust stories ended, do we not? – and anticipating correctly that particular ending took away some of the impact for me. Since I noted virtually no gasps or sniffles as the curtain rose, perhaps I wasn’t alone in that slight letdown.
That is a minor quibble. Heusinger and in particular Hofheimer put in deeply moving, excellent performances. My friends and I all wished that Mientus had started out as strongly as he ended, but unfortunately, his portrayal of the weak, smart-ass, Rudy in the first half of Act I was rather amateurish. He gained strength and found his rhythm in the second half of that Act, but it was too little, too late. The Nazis were the usual nasty stereotypes and it struck me later on that the homosexuals of the time weren’t the only ones who were “bent”, if by “bent” the jargon meant “abnormal”. How much more abnormal could mankind be than what it was during the Reich in Der Vaterland – the ISIS of its day.
If you attend the production, be sure to walk around the lagoon surrounding the Taper and read the various small posters that explain the milieu surrounding the gay world in Germany, going back to the 1800s.
Ends August 23, 2015