Tough stuff, Martin Sherman's Bent: a Holocaust drama, a gay pride anthem, a love story and an actor's dream (or nightmare). Bent attempts to tell an unspeakable story: the Nazi persecution, imprisonment, torture and murder of gay men before and during World War II.***image1***
Based on a memoir by Hans Heger, The Men With the Pink Triangles, Sherman's 1979 play was both groundbreaking and highly controversial at the time. Not for the squeamish or prudish, Bent in its theatrical incarnations drew fire for its language and subject matter; the film version in 1997 received an NC-17 rating.
Cocaine, booze, group sex and swingin' nightclubs provide the social landscape for Bent's opening scene, cleverly drawn to emphasize 1934 Berlin as a mirror of 1970s urban gay party life. Max (John Rochester) lives with his boyfriend, Rudy (David Trujillo). The two of them share a catty domesticity. Max is in the habit of blacking out and inviting pretty boys home for threesomes; this time he's made the mistake of hosting an SA officer named Wolf (Grant Hicks). Nazis pursue Wolf; Max and Rudy escape, bounce around Germany and are eventually arrested and sent to Dachau.
Max is a smooth Lothario, used to getting himself out of trouble by turning on the charm. His adherence to this code of slickness leads to horrific results for both Rudy and himself, until he meets and falls in love with Horst (Eric Wynn), a pink triangle-wearing inmate at Dachau.
Rochester's Max has few of the possible dimensions the character contains, with a Brechtian flatness in his portrayal that moves through deeply transformative turns with a disturbing sameness. In the first act, for example, Max has an opportunity to get out of Germany but refuses because it would mean leaving Rudy behind. This emergence of a conscience, followed by a glimpse of Max's tenderness toward Rudy in the woods where they are hiding out, goes by in the blink of an eye.
Trujillo's Rudy and Wynn's Horst are more vital. Wynn, in particular, turns in a mesmerizing performance, nailing a famous erotic scene in Act 2, for example. Yet another example of Sherman's balls-out ambition, the scene demands so much from both Wynn and Rochester that it's amazing the two of them can finish the play. Trujillo's Rudy is convincingly swishy and codependent yet satisfyingly expands and becomes stronger and more resourceful. It's fortunate for the production that Wynn's Horst enters the picture soon after Rudy's departure. ***image2***Wynn keeps Act 2 interesting, a demanding task indeed, as the stage action consists of Max and Horst moving rocks back and forth almost the entire act.
In general, the direction by W Nicholas Sabato in this performance from the Adult Resident Company of the Santa Fe Performing Arts rightly relies on the actors and their evolving characters. Supporting performances by Barry Hazen and David Jones as Nazis, Chuck Maynard as Uncle Freddie and Artemes C Turchi as a female impersonator lend occasional sparks.
Torture, persecution, murder and the horrors of the Nazi camps are not, perhaps, contextual subjects suited to anything but the most conscientiously crafted fictionalized storytelling. Bent bluntly uses a favorite technique in hammering home the horrific treatment of marginalized groups in order to reflect our culture's continued prejudices. However, when the suffering, misery and horror of a history that's real enough in hundreds of autobiographical memoirs (such as Judith Fein's deeply moving essay in the playbill) come dangerously close to being manipulative, when the misery is sentimentalized or co-opted in the service of either identity politics or a ripping love story, we're left with a bent taste in our mouths.