Martin Sherman's flawlessly written Bent, now in a gripping production at the HotHouse Theatre, is as moving and disturbing today as it was when, in 1977, it broke ground with its subject matter, the prosecution of gays under the Nazis.
Bent begins in 1934, when gays are openly enjoying the free-for-all of pre-war Berlin (we almost expect to run into a few characters from Cabaret).We meet the mismatched couple Rudy (B. Weller) and Max (Michael Jokerst) on a typical morning after. Max, a shallow cocaine user and pusher, is a charming heel, and if Jokerst plays him a bit cartoony in the opening scene, it's forgivable. The first scene is designed to show us the self-centered, party-filled lives of this couple, but it plays a bit off-kilter, mainly because of Weller's Rudy, who never seems to find the right rhythms in the scenes between him and Jokerst. Once the party comes crashing down, though, the seriousness of the play, and the characters' situation, takes over and the production gets on track.
Rudy and Max flee with the help of drag queen Greta, who owns the club where Rudy dances. In his one scene, Marty Stanberry shows us Greta's pragmatic but sympathetic character in bold, well-drawn strokes. But Max and Rudy are captured and put on a train to Dachau, and it's there that Max has to make the first of many gut-wrenching choices that will save his life but whittle away at his humanity -- precisely what the Nazis want. He also meets Horst (Ted Cancila), who warns Max of the perils of wearing a pink triangle, the symbol for gays, as he does. When they meet again at camp, Max is wearing a yellow star that signals him as a Jew. As Max tells the horrific story of the "deal" he made to avoid the pink triangle, Jokerst breaks down, which might not be the most interesting or even correct choice for the character at that moment. Max at this point is still trying to hold it all together but finding it difficult; the big change will come later. Besides, sometimes it's more interesting to watch someone trying not to break down. The material is so devastating, though, the emotion so high, that the scene still works.
The second act is all Horst and Max and a pile of rocks, and Cancila and Jokerst shine, both giving mature, deeply felt performances. Despite not being able to look at each other directly or touch, Max and Horst can at least talk, and here, in the most unlikely of places, Max learns about real love as the two cling to their humanity amid the madness. The famous but difficult orgasm scene, when the characters bring each other to climax using only their minds and words, is played excellently; later, in a more tender parallel scene, Jokerst shows how much Max has grown. The play's inevitable, heart-wrenching conclusion is difficult to watch and hard to shake.
Sometimes the production, directed by Christopher Limber, could have followed Horst's advice and been tender instead of rough; at times it strives for an unnecessary laugh or hits too hard when subtlety would have better made the point. The play's last image, for example, is needlessly overproduced, doing the audience's work for them; let us imagine it ourselves. But the caveats are few; Bent is an excellent production of an important play.
As is well known, HotHouse was prevented from using Missouri Arts Council funds for this production, in violation of MAC'S own policy, presumably because of the play's gay content. It can't be said enough: Shame on the Missouri Arts Council. Bent is a work of art that stresses the importance of the individual, the need for compassion and tolerance, and the redemptive quality of love. To quote from the play: What's wrong with that?