There's a twisted thread running through human nature that too often revels in persecuting people who are different. A thread in the spirit of some that necessarily answers this tendency, one that might be bent but not broken despite vile treatment, often counters it. That’s the focus of Martin Sherman’s 30-year-old play Bent, getting its first-ever professional Cincinnati production by New Stage Collective (NSC).
Set in the mid-1930s, the play focuses on Max (Kellen York), whose gay lifestyle puts him at risk in Berlin during the rise to power of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. Max’s lover Rudy (Matthew Alan Troillett) is a dancer in a nightclub, but their precarious lives rapidly slide downhill as repression of homosexual behavior increases.
They eventually find themselves on a prisoner transport train to the Dachau concentration camp. Max arrives, Rudy dies in transit.
In Act Two, Max works at a mind-numbing task, moving rocks to and fro. His only respite is conversations with Horst (Zlatomir Moldovanski), who Max met on the transport and wangles to have assigned to his work detail. Horst has been assigned a pink triangle, indicating his homosexuality; Max has lied and indicated he’s a Jew, so his uniform bears a yellow Star of David.
Five of the six actors in NSC’s production are college students. Their youth is appropriate for the principal roles, although when several of them double as officers, it makes less sense. But the horrific brutality of the story comes through with glaring, disturbing clarity: Man’s inhumanity to man can go down some very dark roads. Equally evident is the indomitable nature of the human soul to find companionship and love despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. York and Moldovanski’s scenes in the play’s second act, standing side-by-side making love with words, never touching, are a testament to human need and will.
It’s sad that the attitudes in Bent are still present: Although our world is a better place, the rhetoric of hatred and the mind-games necessary to escape it remains. It’s high time for this play to come to Cincinnati audiences.
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