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BWW Reviews: Brilliant BENT Revival at Taper

Bent/by Martin Sherman/directed by Moises Kaufman/Mark Taper Forum/through August 23

When Bent first premiered in 1979 its persecution of gays in Nazi Germany was a real eye opener. This was before the onset of the first scene, the depiction of Max's (Patrick Heusinger)one night stand and his gay relationship with a dancer could have been taken right out of contemporary West Hollywood were it not for the fact that we are told up front that the play takes place in 1934-36. The violence against gays that follows is staggering and horrifying. Deep down we knew that being homosexual had built-in problems and tensions, but did we really think about it so seriously? Did we really know how ugly it all was back then? And what about now? In spite of marriage equality in the US, in Kenya and in other areas of the world, the struggle for sexual freedom unbelievably goes this very day. In a rare revival, Moises Kaufman brilliantly directs this new production of Bent at the Mark Taper Forum, and you'd be a fool to miss it. The cast is extraordinary, and Martin Sherman's poignant lyricism is simultaneously funny, touching and thoroughly riveting from moment to moment.

And there is much eye and ear candy in Act One to engage, such as a naked trick in scene one Wolf (Tom Berklund), the outrageously theatrical entrance of drag artist Greta (Jake Shears) in the club to the strains of "Streets of Berlin" as well as the pretty, scantily dressed dancing boys in the club scene. Along with the treats, there's stark contrast with an array of horrifying tricks - indeed, it's like a sadistic Halloween -in which Wolf gets his throat slashed, and SS officers pop up all over the auditorium, rush in to arrest and torture prisoners. Then there's the treacherous train sequence at the end of Act One where Max learns that he must betray his partner Rudy (Andy Mientus) and physically beat and destroy him, in order to survive.

Max seems incapable of love from the beginning, getting drunk, taking home chorus boys and treating Rudy like a second-hand toy that he casts aside at will. Rudy, in spite of his lack of aggressiveness, ends up being braver and more loyal than Max, a despiccable coward who, rather than face his own death, lies, denies his identity and moves forward at Dachau opting to wear a yellow star as opposed to a pink triangle, Jew as opposed to homosexual. In order to get this favor, he had to prove himself to the SS by screwing the dead corpse of a 13 year-old girl. In Act Two, where Max and pink triangle prisoner Horst (Charlie Hofheimer) must tediously move rocks from one side of the yard to the other and then back - an attempt by the SS to drive them crazy - in extreme temperatures of both hot and cold, Max and Horst can only speak to one another without contact. They have to keep moving and never look at or touch one another. Even during three minute breaks, they must face forward with zero eye contact. In an amazing scene that is at once erotic and chilling Horst - simply through talking - penetrates Max to climax and later in winter when Horst in on the verge of collapsing from a bronchial cough, Max repeats the talking seduction, warming Horst to extreme satisfaction. Beautifully evocative love-making where two men never touch! From this Max realizes for the first time what love is and can no longer live without companionship. Sherman also exercises a tremendous sense of humor in this act, which breaks the monotony of the consistent crosses and makes Max and Horst sound from time to time like an old married couple.

Of course, Bent - meaning queer - is bleak, but oh so powerful in its message of love in exceedingly dark times. Kaufman's staging is emotionally jolting from start to finish and Beowulf Boritt's scenic design is simultaneously functional and engrossing with its enormous plank-like mini-stage that rises up to form an electric fence at the camp and big open dark space surrounding the actors at all times. He is also responsible for the fine costuming.

The acting company is superb from top to bottom. Heusinger is brilliantly pulled in as Max, as Hofheimer is more open, freer to explore as Horst. Mientus makes the best of his scenes as Rudy, never giving in to extreme mousiness, but rather summoning up strength and courage. Shears makes a stunning and wickedly cold Greta. Ray Baker is superlative in one scene as Uncle Freddie, Max's contact who will help him and Rudy get out of Berlin. Praise as well to Berklund, and Brian Slaten, Brionne Davis, Hugo Armstrong, Matthew Carlson, Wyatt Fenner and Jonathan B. Wright who play the officers and guards of the ensemble.

Go see Bent! Whether you are gay or not, you will assuredly be moved to tears by this horrific story of senseless persecution/torture and entertained by the phenomenal production values.

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