Persecution Complex

When Martin Sherman's play Bent premiered in England in 1977, the plight of homosexuals in the Holocaust was a little-discussed episode of the century's history. In the two decades since, the pink triangle which gays were made to wear in the concentration camps--the equivalent of the yellow star worn by Jews--has become a political symbol for gay activism, especially with regard to government indifference to antigay hate crimes and to the AIDS crisis.

Bent has played a major role in increasing awareness of the Nazi persecution of gays. But it is not only for its presentation of new, important subject matter that the work can be called one of the best English-language plays of the '70s--it's also a masterpiece of stagecraft in its own right. Somehow not surprisingly, the play has not had an extensive history on Arizona stages. The current production, an "off-night" at Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre by a new troupe called the Actors Group, redresses that omission, and does so in style--it's a mesmerizing evening.

Sherman, an American playwright active in England, shows amazing skill in his construction of Bent. The play opens in the apartment shared by Max (Rusty Ferracane), a dissolute gay hustler and coke dealer, and his lover Rudy (Robert L. Harper), a sweet-natured club dancer. It's a "morning after" scene, with Max sick and hung over, and his pickup from the previous night, whose name Max can't even remember, wandering around naked. Before long the Gestapo bursts in and kills the pickup, and soon we learn what night this particular morning is after--1934's "Night of the Long Knives," Hitler's purge of homosexuals from the party.

In spite of the shock of seeing the nude young stud murdered before our eyes, the early section of Bent is deceptively easy to take--we're drawn in by some catty, comic dialogue and even a drag number. Then suddenly it's two years later, and Max and Rudy are on a transport train to Dachau, and we're plunged into a world of ubiquitous, suffocating horror.

Just at the point when we're about to go numb, Sherman ingeniously switches tone: The second act takes place at Dachau, next to an electric fence, where Max and a new friend, Horst (Joey Michitsch), have been set the brain-addling task of moving a pile of rocks from one spot to another and back again, endlessly. The horror and heartbreak are still amply present, but the Sisyphean nature of their task adds an edge of pitch-black existential comedy which keeps us from tuning out, as does the two men's discovery of their desperate love for each other.

But the real demonstration of Sherman's mastery is his deft interweaving of the theme of homosexual complicity in homophobia. Max, his hero, prides himself on being a hustler who can talk his way into or out of any situation. He manages, by submitting to an unspeakable humiliation, to finagle a yellow star instead of a pink triangle out of the guards (gays were treated even worse than Jews in the camps). Max's refusal, as a survival measure, to avow his sexuality is what prevents the play from slipping into sentiment or victimology; Sherman uses it as an extreme example of the spiritual consequences of not embracing one's identity.

The best compliment one can pay to the Actors Group version of Bent is that its spare simplicity and fidelity to the text allow all this theme to come through. There's no fanciness or showboating either to Matthew Mazuroski's direction or to the cast. The performances--from Ferracane's haymaker turn as Max and Michitsch's touching Horst, down to the guards--are all excellent, yet all subordinate to the play's vision.

It's hard to imagine a more perfect venue for this play than Planet Earth, with its inyour-face intimacy. I saw Bent in a much inferior production back East more than ten years ago, and though it was still pretty good, it didn't have a tenth of this one's power--mainly, I think, because it was presented in a large conventional auditorium on a proscenium stage.

Any criticisms would be the merest quibbles. Though Harper gives a terrific, touching performance as Rudy, he doesn't look much like a dancer, and he seems, curiously, older than Max, who treats him like a kid. The curtain call, with the actors walking out like somnambulists to the accompaniment of spooky music, is the play's one artsy touch; it seems unnecessary. And maybe the horrible scene that explains the title, in which Max describes to Horst what the guards forced him to do, would be even more harrowing if it were played in a slightly lower key.

Or maybe not. In any case, the insignificance of these issues should suggest how seamless this production is. The Actors Group's Bent is terrifying and infuriating history, and it's exhilarating theatre. It's sensational, in both the best and the worst senses of that word.

The Actors Group's production of Bentcontinues through Thursday, March14, at Planet Earth Multi-Cultural Theatre, 909 North Third Street. For details see Theatre listing in Thrills.