After reading a brief synopsis of Martin Sherman’s Bent, I walked into the Phoenix Theatre with a sober mind and an open heart. The BAND Group’s production tells an unbridled and unapologetic story of the persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust. Director Adrian Lopez-Balbontin approaches this emotionally charged script with a delicate tenderness and unabashed honesty, moving many in the small preview audience to tears. Produced in coordination with OutFront Minnesota (www.outfront.org), this show is a clear effort to create a space of belonging, reflection, and observance for those in the LGBTQ+ community. This production is a beautiful platform to carry Pride beyond the end of June.
Sitting in the intimate space of The Phoenix’s black box, audiences witness the vulnerability and humanness of each of the seven actors on stage. Set and props designer Jex Arzayus creates a simple and suggestive playing space with strong horizontal lines of grey fencing. The fence is a malleable backdrop: we’re in a Berlin apartment, a forest of refugees, a worksite at camp Dachau. Ben Harvey’s choice of opening house music instantly recalls the dark but garish clubs of Cabaret, which have the effect of placing us in time (1930s) and space (Berlin). As the tragedy unfolds, Harvey’s sound design gently transports us to each new location with both live and recorded ambient noise. Kaitlyn Larsen’s costumes first expose and then disguise the bodies on stage, signaling the queer men movement from self-expression to militant oppression when they are captured by the SS. The production feels holistically designed with a dedication to the play’s message over the artistic pursuits of any one designer. It’s a beautiful thing to see artists in service to a cause and message, and this is true of the seven-person cast as well.
Enter Max (Adam Rouser): a flamboyant and excessive swindler, living meagerly in his Berlin flat with lover Rudy (Andrew Newman), a devoted dancer boyfriend who really puts up with too much. Max breathes through his hangover after a rousing night at a gay club owned by Greta (Corey DiNardo), the so-called Pansy Performer (which is, truly, what today’s drag queens would have been called in the 1930s). Things take a turn for the worst when Max’s one-night-stand Wolf (Aaron Boger) is taken by the Gestapo. Max and Rudy flee unsuccessfully and are themselves abducted and placed on a train to Dachau. On the train they meet Horst (Kjer Whiting). While many Holocaust victims wear yellow stars on their striped uniforms, Horst wears a pink triangle: the queer identification symbol, and pink triangles are hated more in the camps than even yellow stars. When Max and Rudy are separated, Horst becomes a companion in tragedy for Max.
Adam Rouser truly lays himself bare in his portrayal of Max. His breathing alone carried me through the performance; his starkness and humility give voice to so many queer victims whose stories had scarcely been told when this play premiered in 1979. At times measured and intentional, and at times broken and panicked, Rouser’s breath symbolizes the boxes many queer people must force themselves into, and the uncertain and hostile world that often lies outside those boxes. Max’s sole ally in the second act of Bent is Horst; Kjer Whiting’s performance is a unique compliment to Rouser’s: less open, a bit harder to unpack. This contrast displays the diversity of the queer identity that the Nazi party (and fearfully many people today) want to generalize and marginalize. The two queer roles contrast greatly with the SS Captain (Alex Church). As the only dominating voice, he doesn’t make an appearance on stage until close to the show’s conclusion. This show reinforces stark disparities between vulnerability and authority, and between the raw and the rule.
Bent opened my eyes to a too-recent history that has been under-explored. I believe in the efforts The BAND Group and OutFront MN are taking to create a world of equality, safety, and liberty for LGBTQ+ individuals. Adrian Lopez-Balbontin, the cast, and the creative team of Bent have provided a perfect space for these reflections. I hope this production encourages you to be an ally, to strive for vulnerability, and to donate and support www.outfront.org.