The Changing Scene Theatre Northwest is running a production of Martin Sherman’s 1979 “Bent,” a story of gay prisoners caught up in the Holocaust. Directed by Pavlina Morris, the Changing Scene production is well acted and is presented with both good humor and pathos.
At its inception, “Bent” was a watershed in drama. The mainstreaming of a theatrical drama featuring gay characters, which told the forgotten story of the plight of gays in Nazi concentration camps, was also a milestone in the struggle for gay rights. From the beginning, “Bent” appealed to a wide audience and garnered the support of major talent. Ian McKellen starred in the London premiere in ’79 and Richard Gere starred in the 1980 Broadway production. “Bent” was part and parcel to a time, not that long ago, when the members of the gay community began to assert the right to live their lives free of persecution – out in the open.
As a historical drama, the play shed light on a little-known chapter of the Holocaust. It was not only Jews who were rounded up and sent to death camps. Anyone deemed undesirable by the Nazi regime was removed from German society. Gays, gypsies, Jehovah Witnesses, communists, vagrants and criminals in addition to Jewish folks were taken away to the labor camps.
“Bent” (the title is a European slang term for homosexuality) starts off in the roaring Berlin of the mid 1930s Weimar Republic. There is a thriving gay subculture centered on a cluster of night clubs. Things change with the “Night of the Long Knives,” a Nazi purge of members from its own ranks including Ernst Rohm, the openly gay leader of the “Brown Shirts,” the Nazi party’s violent street gang. Following that, the gay clubs are closed down and laws forbidding homosexuality are vigorously enforced.
In the play, Max (here played by Nick Fitzgerald), a rather promiscuous gay man, ends up in the Dachau labor camp. Although Max is not Jewish, he was able to work a deal – through shocking means – by which he is classified as a Jew. He would rather wear the yellow star of a Jew than the pink triangle that the Nazis used to mark gay prisoners (this is the origin of the pink triangle as a symbol of gay pride). Max has quickly figured out that those who wear the pink triangle are marked out for the most brutal treatment because they are considered the lowest of the low by the authoritarian regime. In the world of the have-nots, there are still gradations among the despised.
Max is assigned the pointless task of moving rocks from one place to another and back again. He realizes that the job is designed to drive him crazy, but he also realizes that it is the best job in the camp because, serving no practical purpose, there is no urgency behind it. Hence, the guards pay little heed to how quickly the work is being done. Max simply needs a friend to talk to in order to keep himself sane and so he makes a bribe in order to have Horst (Corey Thompson), a gay prisoner who had previously helped him, assigned to help in the task.
The dialogue between the two men, as they move stones back and forth, is often funny (the play has a stream of dark humor running through it). Remarkably, the two men fall in love and experience intense feelings for one another despite the knife’s edge of existence upon which they stand. At one point Horst says that he is glad that they’re where they are. Despite everything, Horst has found the freedom to love. It is both an irony and a testament to the human spirit that Horst and Max can have an intense love affair without being able to look at each other, let alone touch one another.
“Bent” functions on a number of levels. It sheds light on the history of gays under Nazi rule. As a cultural touchstone, “Bent” was part of the process of the assertion of gay rights and the acceptance of gay folks as part of mainstream culture. On the literary level, “Bent” is an engaging story of human perseverance in the face of the direst limitations.
Max’s task of moving stones from one place to another for no reason, as well as the theme of finding the freedom to be one’s authentic self, brings to mind the work of the French author and existentialist philosopher Albert Camus. In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Camus notes that “the gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.” Camus is able to imagine this hellish punishment as a means by which the mythical Sisyphus is able to find meaning and liberation. “The struggle itself toward the heights,” says Camus, “is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” A similar process seems to be at work in “Bent.”
In the intimate confines of the Dukesbay Theater (508 6th Ave., #10), the production utilizes a very spare set with minimal props. The acting is uniformly good. In addition to the aforementioned Fitzgerald and Thompson, both of whom take their characters through the grim and magical second act in the concentration camp, there are four additional cast members. Jason Quisenberry is especially charming as the dancer Rudy, Max’s boyfriend, through the first act.
Joseph Magin gets to show a lot of skin in his stark entry onto the stage. As Wolf, Magin plays one of the gay Nazis who is targeted in the “Night of the Long Knives.” He has spent a drunken night with Max and their conversation the following morning provides much of the humor in the first act. Magin also plays a prison camp guard in the subsequent portions of the play.
Eric Cuestas-Thompson plays both the transvestite nightclub owner, Greta, and Max’s Uncle Freddy, a closeted gay man who tries to teach Max survival through leading a double existence.
The suave Paul Sobrie plays the Nazi captain, who is chillingly predatory in the way he plays cat and mouse with those who are so unfortunate as to have fallen into his clutches.
One problem with the play is the way that the final scene is handled. The deadly nature of the prison camp fence needs a little more emphasis and more could have been done with sound effects and lighting effects to make clear what is happening.
I am not certain that the end will be clear to those unfamiliar with the script.
After all of the buildup, Max’s last act of the drama comes across as unnecessarily rushed.
It is nice to see community theater fighting back against authoritarian tendencies that have been unleashed in the country. Despite gains in the realm of civil rights, it is still not entirely safe for folks to be openly gay. Intolerance at the top of the power structure has the effect of encouraging intolerance throughout all levels of the social order. It is not enough to struggle for rights. Once won, those rights must be maintained through constant diligence. The beast of prejudice and intolerance is always out there, waiting for ignorance and complacency to cast a shroud beneath which it can gain entry into our midst. This production of “Bent” is part of the diligence needed to remind ourselves to be on our guards.
“Bent” runs through May 26. For show times and ticketing information visit bent2018.brownpapertickets.com.