Los Angeles Theater Review: BENT (Mark Taper Forum)

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by Tony Frankel on July 28, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles

DACHAU DELIVERANCE TO THE MAX

More than six million Jews were slaughtered by Nazis. When Martin Sherman wrote Bent in 1979, the yellow star that emblazoned the clothing of Jews was well-known, but history had yet to add “We shall never forget” to the image of a pink triangle, the insignia used to identify the unnumbered thousands of homosexuals also killed by Nazi hate in the death camps. Now, thanks to Sherman’s play and 1980s’ AIDS activists, the gay community has adopted the (inverted) pink triangle as its symbol. Even though acceptance is snowballing around the globe, the stories of those outcasts who fought to survive during the Third Reich remain harrowing.

Charlie Hofheimer, Andy Mientus, Patrick Heusinger, Brionne Davis and Matthew Carlson in BENT, directed by Moisés Kaufman, at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

As does Sherman’s stirring, punishing drama, which opened this week at the Taper. He sums up the many life losses between 1933 and 1945 in three sharply-captured lives and deaths. Amid the carnage, Bent chronicles a gain: This sincere but unevenly constructed play shows how Max, a handsome, hedonistic, cocaine-snorting homosexual, learns to love in a world wild with evil.

Patrick Heusinger and Ray Baker in BENT, directed by Moisés Kaufman, at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

Some first act images in Moisés Kaufman’s stunningly staged production are reminiscent of Cabaret (Jake Shears, lead singer for Scissor Sisters, makes a brief but memorable appearance as Greta, a supposedly non-gay drag performer). But this story is the other side of Germany with no Kit Kat Klub to distract us from Hitler’s gaping genocide, even though Sherman occasionally tosses in some gallows humor.

(front) Matthew Carlson, Jake Shears, (back) Jonathan B. Wright, Brionne Davis and Wyatt Fenner in BENT, directed by Moisés Kaufman, at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

To a fault, the playwright spares no sensibilities in his lean, graphic, relentless depiction of these same-sex survivors caught up in the Holocaust. As if making up for past silence on the subject, each scene hits like a body blow. In Act I, feckless Berlin party boy and drug-user Max and his delicate dancer boyfriend Rudy encounter instant hell. Bent begins in 1934, the morning following the Night of the Long Knives, when Hitler purged Ernst Röhm and the SA from the military. When Nazi officers arrive, Max and Rudy take it on the lam. Eventually, this becomes Max’ story, and once he comes face to face with meaningless tragic death, he cuts ever more despicable deals to save his skin.

Charlie Hofheimer and Patrick Heusinger in BENT, directed by Moisés Kaufman, at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.Act 1 is beautifully staged, and Kaufman overcomes a script which still feels stilted and didactic. Beowulf Boritt’s giant hydraulic ramp and his stunning outfits (both in simplicity and authenticity) serve as a canvas for Justin Townsend’s dramatic lighting. Sound designer Cricket S. Myers gets to really show her stuff, from music to train effects.

Act II offers its own difficulty—there’s little movement and change in scene: Max, now in a prison camp in 1936, wears the yellow star of David to make his life easier there, and even bribes the guards to let him carry rocks, a torture worthy of Sisyphus. He found a way to have a fellow gay inmate, Horst, carry the rocks with him. At first Horst, a former nurse, taunts Max for denying his sexuality, but eventually Max slowly learns to care for Horst, a love that even grows from lack of sex. (In a famous scene they do, however, make love without touching.)

Charlie Hofheimer & Patrick Heusinger in BENT, directed by Moisés Kaufman, at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.To the first-time viewer, this act will seem daring and distressing. Of course it’s an upsetting situation, punctuated by the most evil of Nazi guards, but I found myself disconnected. We are in a prison camp the entire act and if it isn’t emotionally riveting, and if we don’t see a growth in the relationship between Max and Horst, than it’s not as compelling. As Horst, Charlie Hofheimer is fantastic; we actually see a progression in him. At one point when he was sick, Hofheimer actually seemed pale and in a cold sweat. As Max, Patrick Heusinger isn’t bad, he just isn’t deep; as such, there was no progression for his emotional commitment, he just suddenly arrives there. He establishes Max’s feckless ways early on but not his later redemptive devotion.

Patrick Heusinger and Charlie Hofheimer in BENT, directed by Moisés Kaufman, at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

When it arrived back in the 70s, Bent was essentially a political cry for acceptance. Now, it seems almost anthropological in its approach, unearthing and studying its characters from a distance. Still, this production offers the best artists working in the theater, and I would recommend it for someone who hasn’t seen it before.

The cast of BENT, directed by Moisés Kaufman, at the Mark Taper Forum. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

photos by Craig Schwartz

Bent
Center Theatre Group
Mark Taper Forum
Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave
ends on August 23, 2015
for tickets, call 213.628.2772 or visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

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