Beck Center’s poignant ‘Bent’ bends but never breaks
By Bob Abelman
Few of us can imagine the indignation of being singled out, sequestered and assigned a yellow Star of David to wear. Fewer still can envision someone’s desperate desire to wear one.
But this aspiration is at the very heart of Martin Sherman’s Holocaust drama “Bent,” which calls attention to the lowest class status of homosexuals in the Nazi concentration camps – designated by a pink triangle – and the heightened severity of persecution, if such a thing is possible, that goes along with it.
The horrifying acts of denial, deception and betrayal that the gentile and flamboyantly gay Max performs to obtain a Jewish star is the focus of this immensely powerful play.
In its staging at the Beck Center for the Arts, “Bent” proves to be a still-relevant story about the oppression of queer individuals that needs to be told, though it does so with some glitches in the storytelling.
For this production, director Matthew Wright has been saddled with Beck’s smaller stage, the Studio Theater, whose intimacy is a double-edged sword for shows like this.
Audience members are so close to the performance space that we can easily reach out and touch the performers while the world of the play forbids their characters from ever touching one another. This dramatic contrast perfectly highlights the fundamental cruelty reflected in this play and adds resonance to the characters’ desperate efforts to connect with each other by other means.
But the space’s intimacy also contributes to underplayed performances by Antonio DeJesus as Max’s sweet but spineless lover Rudy, Brian Altman as the ruthless drag queen Greta, and Luke Ehlert as a prison guard, as if to overcompensate for the close proximity. More calibrated and interesting portrayals are turned in by others, including David Bugher as Max’s discreetly gay Uncle Freddie and Nate Homolka as Wolf, one of Max’s one-nighters at the start of the play.
The small space actually accommodates the many and potentially problematic set changes required in the early part of this play, when Max and Rudy are on the run from SS troupers. It allows scenic designer Aaron Benson to employ seven sliding panels that depict projected images created by Steve Shack to establish a sense of location along with a few furnishings, which become successively diminished as the play moves from an apartment in Berlin to a desolate courtyard in a concentration camp.
But there is also a minimal use of sound and lighting design by Angie Hayes and Benjamin Gantose, respectively, which surely would have enhanced the muscularity of the text and the theatricality of its presentation.
Case in point is the lengthy scene where prisoners are assigned to move rocks from one side of the courtyard to the next. The sheer mindlessness and monotony of this activity is actually monotonous to watch when some form of sensorial augmentation could have made it dramatic as well.
The intimacy of the space also detaches the audience from the world of the play during the set and costume changes by clearly exposing the on-stage performers who do them. It is hard enough to suspend disbelief when these changes are performed by black-clad stagehands; it is impossible to do so when performed by Nazi officers and the recently dead.
And yet, none of these shortcomings undermine the superb performances turned in by Geoff Knox as Max and Andrew Gorell as Horst, Max’s fellow prisoner and only friend who was assigned a pink triangle for having signed a petition for gay rights in Germany.
The emotional trajectories of these characters are perfectly paced, honest and interesting. The actors’ delicate management of the play’s gallows humor, of which there is plenty, is authentic and engaging. And the play’s most psychologically naked moments – Max’s recounting of what was required of him on the transport train to earn his star and Horst’s fear of losing his sanity and his life – are beautifully performed by these actors. Their final moment together is a master class in anguished restraint.
“Bent” was a landmark of gay theater when it premiered in London in 1979 and it holds up still. And this production’s understated quality, while occasionally troublesome, most certainly sets its focus squarely on the inward drama of its key characters without ever losing touch with the brutality of their situation. It offers a lesson about humanity that still needs to be taught. cv
WHERE: Beck Center for the Arts, 17801 Detroit Ave., Lakewood
WHEN: Through July 1
TICKETS & INFO: $12-$31, call 216-521-2540 or go to beckcenter.org
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. 2017 AP Ohio Media Editors best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 3, 2018.
Lead image: Andrew Gorell as Horst (left) and Geoff Knox as Max. Photo / Andy Dudik