By Cory Bilicko
Before Martin Sherman’s play Bent was published in 1979, literature that addressed the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany was scarce. Homosexuals who did survive the concentration camps later abstained from recounting their experiences to avoid persecution by the German government for violations of Paragraph 175, a provision of the German Criminal Code that prohibited homosexual acts between men.
Under the direction of its co-artistic director Denis McCourt, the Long Beach Shakespeare Company is presenting Bent through Oct. 9.
The play opens during the early days of Hitler’s reign. Max and his partner Rudy, who live in Berlin, are beginning their day. Max, who is sexually active outside their relationship, has brought home a dashing Sturmabteilung (SA) stormtrooper, who is soon discovered and killed by Schutzstaffel (SS) men in the couple’s apartment. (The SA consisted of many gay men, including Ernst Rohm, who had been appointed its chief of staff by Hitler in 1931. The SS, threatened by its perception of the SA’s rise to power, and with the Führer’s blessing, assassinated those SA members who were known to be homosexual.) Max and Rudy (the latter reluctantly so) decide to leave Berlin, as the threat was extending to homosexual men outside the SA.
Although Max’s (more discreetly) gay uncle Freddie has organized new papers for his nephew to flee the country, Max refuses to leave Rudy behind. Consequently, the couple are found by the Gestapo, arrested and forced onto a train bound for Dachau concentration camp.
Although they make an effort to not show their feelings for each other, Rudy cries out to Max as the Nazis drag the former away, so he is brought back to Max, who claims to not know him, and the guards force him to beat his partner to death.
As if the incidents he has endured hitherto aren’t enough, Max partakes in another horrific act to prove he is not homosexual. After successfully convincing the guards he is heterosexual, he tells them he is a Jew, believing the chances for survival at Dachau are better for those labeled with a yellow star (Jews) than those identified by a pink triangle (homosexuals).
At the camp, Max befriends, then becomes lovers with, Horst, and the two embark on a non-physical but intense, life-changing relationship as they are put to “work” moving heavy rocks from one place to another and back.
McCourt impressed last month with The Conjugated Beliefs of Usallica, his own play, which he also directed. The absurdist work is funny, thoughtful and engaging, and McCourt was blessed with a strong, professional cast that was well equipped to understand and convey all the play’s humor and pathos.
With this production of Bent, some of that complexity and refinement in performance is missing. Granted, a play about homosexuals who are thrust from a pre-war, decadent Berlin into Nazi concentration camps isn’t going to be a walk in the park, but there is, at times, almost a coldness that reads as apathy from a prominent player. (Perhaps a switcheroo of two actors would have done the trick.) Considering there are lulls in action at times (carrying rocks to and fro, to and fro, to and fro…), the dialogue in those scenes could have been infused with a bit more variation of tone and liveliness. Again, tricky stuff considering the subject matter, but the impact of the story would have been more potent had the audience felt more of the humanity of the characters.
That said, there was indeed much sniffling and tissue use among the audience during and after last Sunday’s performance, so the essence of Bent’s emotional core is certainly present. The actors portraying Nazis (Kevin Snustead and Lukas Vetrak) are frighteningly convincing, and, as nightclub owner Greta, Steven Dean is sensational. Contributing to these performances is Barbara Josefberg’s costume design, which provides just enough garment to help create the character, without drawing attention to itself.
For its unique historical perspective, compelling story and potential for emotional catharsis alone, Bent deserves to be seen.
Bent will continue at The Expo Backroom Theatre, 4321 Atlantic Ave., through Oct. 9. Friday and Saturday performances are at 8pm, and Sunday matinees are at 2pm. For ticket information, call (562) 997-1494 or visit lbshakespeare.org.