The 2022-2023 season came to a rather electric start—and my current tenure as a regular reviewer in residence for South Florida Theatre Magazine to a rather electric end—with Empire Stage’s production of Bent, a 1979 Martin Sherman play that earned a lasting place in the canon with its premiere but is seldom produced given its inflammatory subject matter: the treatment of homosexual men during the Third Reich.
After an evocative opening setting the scene at a sleazy dance club called Greta’s that is likely to be titillating to any audience members who appreciate the male form, we zoom in on effete and sensitive dancer Rudy and his boyfriend Max, whose roguish drunken flirtations and self-interested scheming belie a badly damaged but ultimately compassionate soul.
The two are winning us over with a well-crafted exchange in which they endearingly attempt to work through their domestic foibles until the SS makes their presence known in the first of the play’s many shocking and savage moments. Though there is no shortage of Holocaust plays out there, nor is this my first time covering one even in recent memory, Bent is both far more disturbing and perhaps more palatably powerful than its counterparts in that it represents full-out some of the wrenching violence the Third Reich engaged in instead of leaving the worst offstage.
This brutality, which some critics deemed gratuitous, is one reason Bent is considered too controversial for many theatre companies to reckon with. But though it doesn’t take much analysis to trace the ways in which Bent’s construction and extremity was clearly shaped by Sherman’s desire to wring the maximum impact from his chosen subject matter, that in no way detracts from his formula’s raw effectiveness. This is especially true considering the fact that Sherman drew heavily from various historical sources, which suggests that everything Bent portrays is achingly plausible.
Though the performances feel a little lacking in energy during Max and Rudy’s initial scenes and the action is a bit slow to develop overall, actors Matthew Salas and Ben Shaevitz gradually rise to the play’s occasion as their characters’ fun-loving bohemian life is supplanted by a lengthy psychological nightmare. This is especially true of Salas—while Shaevitz gets off comparatively easy after a few excruciating moments, Salas’s embodied self-disgust is the emotional lynchpin of the act’s finale, which involves his character describing himself engaging in behavior so viscerally disturbing I couldn’t help but physically cringe during his confession.
And, from there, things only get worse. Salas also must carry much of the emotional burden of Act 2, where it turns out that Max and Rudy’s ill-fated love affair is only the warm up to an even more poignant Romeo and Romeo story that develops between Max and another fellow prisoner, Horst, during the second act. As Horst, Seth Trucks gives perhaps an even more extraordinary performance, one in which he conveys layer after layer of piercing pain amidst an onslaught of Nazi-inflicted indignities. In the intimate space, you can clearly see these outsize emotions overtake his face from even the back row, and later get a glimpse of his tremendous, soul-baring vulnerability when he and Salas’s character get closer.
Desperately, the two characters attempt to hold on to their sanity and their souls while spending twelve hours a day engaged in the maddening, Sisyphean task of moving rocks from one pile to another; an inane task designed to drive prisoners crazy with its repetitiveness but that Max has decided is actually the least excruciating job in the camp.
The other major criticism sometimes leveraged against Bent is usually aimed at the play’s implication that homosexual men not only suffered alongside Jews in concentrations camps but suffered more, to the extent that Max disguises himself as a Jew rather than a “fluff” to avoid the camp’s worst indignities.
And while it is true that both Horst and Max make statements that could support that controversial conclusion, they are still mere characters speaking from their own experiences rather than necessarily to be understood as some sort of universal arbiters.
And while the question of who actually suffered more during the Holocaust feels like one that is beyond my capacity to weigh in on without a lot more research, a much more uncomplicated truth is that the tales of those who bore pink triangles are told far less often than stories of Jews who perished, which alone is a reason that the staging of a work like Bent would feel warranted even if that controversial conclusion were determined to be a flawed one.
The poignant reason why Horst suggests that gay men may suffer more— because other prisoners and guards have more disdain for them—is also one that rings worthy of consideration if not unequivocal affirmation. But part of what elevates Bent into something more than a history lesson is the skill with which Sherman gets us to care about his characters, and the way in which he emphasizes their struggle to hold onto their humanity despite their unthinkable circumstances as well as dramatizing the circumstances themselves.
For instance, in one of the play’s most moving scenes, Horst and Max find a way to share an intimate moment with one another despite the fact that they are forbidden from touching or even looking at each other. Another powerful moment features one man’s confession of love and the other’s agonized response, and is also a thought provoking examination of internalized self loathing as well as a showcase of how the mere idea of connection with others can bolster us through even what seems unfathomable.
Bent is also noteworthy for the complex moral questions it poses through the dilemmas Max faces. Though his privilege allows him favors, like his ability to assure his own as well as Horst’s placement at his comparatively cushy rock slinging gig, it also places him in the unenviable position of having to make many unenviable decisions when it comes to how that privilege should be used.
As far as the rest of the show’s cast, director Larry Buzzeo is quite effective in his minor role as Greta, who also adds to the show’s exploration of the moral quandaries the Holocaust presented as someone who exploits gay iconography without being homosexual himself.
Jesus Reyna’s turn as a chillingly sadistic SS captain is also essential to pulling off the show’s equally chilling ending, which turns my opening line into an unwitting pun, and Craig Moody offers plenty of intensity in the minor role of Wolf. Sparse but effective set and costume design, also by Larry Buzzeo, and lighting design by Preston Bircher are also essential to the play’s effectiveness.
Though Bent also offers its moments of dark humor, the weight of the drama far eclipses it when it comes to overall impression. While it is an incredibly hard play to watch, to the extent that I can’t imagine the emotional implications of every play had this much intensity, it is one that was incredibly humbling to behold, especially as someone who has personal connections to both Jewish persecution during the Holocaust and LGBT issues. Because of its power to invoke empathy for those who suffered and reflection on the event’s gravity, it’s also one I believe should be produced far more often. Thus, if you’re prepared for a potentially painful but excellently staged and beautifully written work of theatre, then you should make every effort to catch Bent at Empire Stage before it closes up on this September 25!