In the interest of full disclosure, let me say two things right off the bat: 1) Bent is one of my all-time favorite plays; and 2) one of the actors in the current Theatre Rhino production is a friend of mine.
OK, so here goes: Please please please go see this play. Even if you've seen it before. Even if you're not queer. Especially if you have seen the movie, which is a lousy facsimile of the real thing. This production, directed by John Fisher, is impressively conceived, cleverly designed, and full of nuanced, gut-wrenching performances. The holidays are an odd time to pick for an evening of savagery and survival in a Nazi concentration camp, but the play's solemnity and ultimate testament to the redemptive power of love seem to me to be quite germane (ha, no pun intended).
The play opens in decadent 1930's Berlin. We meet Max (Clayton B. Hodges), an apolitical hedonist who is always "working a deal," and his effeminate dancer-lover Rudy (Enrique Vallejo). It's the morning after Max has made a debauched spectacle of himself at a local nightclub. Ensuing events leave the couple on the run from the Nazis who have just launched their purge of suspected homosexuals. We meet a trick named Wolf (the yummy Michael Vega), and other friends and lovers who either aid or betray the couple as they fall further into exile, finally living as human scavengers in the woods. To be honest, the production takes a while to hit its stride -- the opening scenes are a bit shrill with too much huffy, banging-around stage business -- and Hodges and Vallejo are a little clumsy at defining the relationship between the two lovers (they get better as the play proceeds). But stick with it. Act One ends with the couple's capture and detainment by the Nazis. On the train, a couple of vicious soldiers sadistically force Max into participating in his lover's brutal murder. Then we land in Dachau.
Ironically, Dachau is where the play becomes beautiful. The second act concentrates on the developing friendship between Max and another prisoner, Horst (Kevin Clarke), as they spend their days moving a pointless pile of rocks from one side of the camp to the other. In a standout performance, Kevin Clarke delivers a pitch-perfect portrait of Horst, an older, openly gay man who, despite his most appalling and inhumane treatment, hangs onto his shredded pride, diginity and sense of humor. Clarke's slow, silent shuffle through a food line reveals more about Horst's history in the camp than any words put to paper. Horst resents Max for wearing the yellow star of a Jew instead of the pink triangle of a homosexual (which relegates its wearer to the lowest rung on the prisoner ladder). How the dealmaker Max was able to "upgrade" his status to the yellow star is one of the more harrowing truths in the play, and Hodges delivers this story with such savage self-hatred, one can barely breathe when he is finished with his monologue. Clayton B. Hodges is a force to behold.
As the rocks mount and the men's friendship strengthens, there are moments of bleak humor, unspeakable cruelty, and extraordinary tenderness. In a remarkable scene, the playwright has the two men -- constantly watched by guards and unable to touch -- stand side by side and talk each other to sexual climax. It is a scene of such powerful intimacy, it moves beyond sex and into the realm of human survival and hope. This staging was the most painful and exhausting and gorgeous sexual encounter I have ever witnessed in the theatre or in the movies, hands down. Hodges and Clarke were so emotionally raw, so connected, so believably turned-on, I almost had to avert my eyes. And get this: THEY WEREN'T EVEN LOOKING AT EACH OTHER.
On the stagecraft: Erik Flatmo's set and David Robertson's lighting are great examples of compelling, intelligent theatrical design. They didn't try to create a "realistic" concentration camp; instead they made clever use of their minimal resources, organizing a bare, exposed stage with an arrangement of wires, sheets, and pools of light. Fisher's fluid direction, which incorporates video projection and live cabaret acts, makes maximum use of this Brechtian environment. And the play's climactic ending is such an effective intersection of design, direction, and performance, it's hard to top for sheer theatricality.
I would say that the production's one small flaw is the uneven performances of some of the minor players, though how one can portray a convincing Nazi in a post-Ralph Fiennes/Schindler's List world is hard to say. There was also a lot of reliance on the banging of doors, a contrivance that seemed over the top to me -- the play's circumstances are certainly menacing enough. But Fisher directs with a sure hand, and he gets some lovely, bittersweet performances out of the supporting cast, most notably Matt Weimer as Greta, a cross-dressing chanteuse, and Greg Lucey as Freddie, a wealthy, closeted uncle who tries to help Max. But it is Hodges and Clarke as Max and Horst who carry the show to a transcendent plane, and they carry us right along with them. Most people say Romeo & Juliet is the greatest tragic love story ever told, but I would offer that Bent may just be its equal.
Bent runs through January 7, 2006.
Visit Theater Rhinoceros (at therhino.org) for tickets and information.