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‘Bent’ at Mark Taper lets defiant love shine amid the Holocaust

Playwright Martin Sherman, left, and director Moises Kaufman at the Mark Taper Forum.

Playwright Martin Sherman, left, and director Moises Kaufman at the Mark Taper Forum.

(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

The Mark Taper Forum is dark and still during a tense scene in a preview performance of “Bent,” Martin Sherman’s 1979 play about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals.

In a Berlin aparment in the early 1930s, an arrest is underway. Suddenly, uniformed Nazis burst into the theater, coming down the aisles shining flashlights into the audience. Some audience members wince and shrink in their seats; others grab the arms of their partners.

But a funny thing happens as the play unfolds. In a barren rock quarry of Dachau, rimmed with electriried wire fencing and under the hateful watch of guards, love blossoms. The friendship and romance that grows between two male prisoners, as they lug heavy rocks back and forth, is tender and brave and sexy and sad – a thicket of contradictions.

“I don’t find the play dark. I find it full of life and humor,” says director Moises Kaufman. “We have this preconception about tragedy. I think tragedy is only one color in bad fiction. In reality, there was sexual attraction in the camps – wherever the human spirit is alive there will be sexual attraction – and humor.”

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Sherman, sitting alongside Kaufman, calls the play inherently optimistic.

“One of the things the Nazis did was to strip you of your personality,” he says. “But if you found a way to somehow grab a hold of your sexuality, then you found a way of maintaining your identity in the camp – which was a great act of defiance.”

“Bent,” which opens Sunday, premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1979 starring Ian McKellen, before moving to the West End. It debuted on Broadway later that year with Richard Gere in the title role of Max, a Berlin party boy in the liberal Weimar Republic who finds himself on the run from the Nazis with his lover, Rudy.

The Broadway production received mixed reviews, but it was nominated for a Tony award for best play and is now considered a landmark work, one of the first contemporary plays to openly address gay issues on Broadway.

Coming right before the onset of the AIDS crisis, “Bent” foreshadowed the Broadway of “La Cage aux Folles,” “The Normal Heart” and “Angels in America” and illuminated the then little-known Nazi persecution of homosexuals, who were rounded up along with Jews, gypsies and Communists.

“Almost no one knew about this [in 1980],” Kaufman says. “My father is a Holocaust survivor and I still didn’t know that gays were persecuted in the Holocaust until I read this play.”

Though “Bent” has been performed at universities and smaller theaters across the country over the years, the Taper production is the first major U.S. revival of it since 1979.

“In those days, people were afraid of it,” Sherman says. “It was done in secondary theaters and it would win awards, but the main regional theaters didn’t touch it. And I think that set a pattern.”

The Taper production is set in an entirely different social and political climate. When the Supreme Court announced its decision to legalize same sex marriage, “Bent” was midway through rehearsals.

“We opened champagne, everyone was crying,” says Kaufman, who has been with his now-husband for 26 years. “I said to the actors: ‘today the play has been rewritten’; each time there’s a new context, it gets rewritten.”

Michael Ritchie, Center Theatre Group artistic director, says he has wanted to stage “Bent” ever since seeing it on Broadway -- “I remember it vividly. I have a list of 25 plays where I think ‘one day…' and ‘Bent’ was one of them.”

But bringing the production to life now (a decision spurred by Kaufman’s interest) gives it new relevance, he says.

“We’re only a month or so removed from a major, significant, positive move forward for gay Americans,” Ritchie says. “And yet, ‘Bent’ makes you realize that it was a long road to get there, and we should never forget what happened before that led up to it.”

Sherman hopes the play serves as a reminder not to take the freedoms that we enjoy in the West for granted. And it’s a marker of how far we still have to go, elsewhere around the world.

“It’s an enormous accomplishment to be where we are today,” Sherman says of the recent strides regarding gay marriage. “But what happens in the play – persecution, specifically if you’re gay – happens in a number of African countries and Islamic countries. And it’s beginning to happen in Russia. It’s still going on.”

It was while watching a London rehearsal of “As Time Goes By” in the mid-'70s that Sherman -- who grew up Jewish in Camden, N.J. where, he says, no one talked about the Holocaust -- got the idea for “Bent.”

A brief mention of “pink triangles,” the symbol gay prisoners were made to wear on their concentration camp uniforms, captured Sherman’s imagination. It set him on a research quest at a London library specializing in works about Nazi Germany.

The librarian, Sherman recalls, was openly homophobic, “but she was a terrific librarian.” She found obscure bits of information about the treatment of homosexuals during the Third Reich that helped Sherman piece together the history.

After “Bent” premiered, shedding “historical and dramatic light” on the pink triangle, as Ritchie puts it, the symbol became a badge of honor for gay rights activists throughout the AIDS crisis and to this day.

“When AIDS happened and we all took to the streets, what was our sign? A pink triangle – because of this man,” Kaufman says of Sherman. “And I think there’s something about reclaiming that history that’s powerful – that’s something that theater can do.”

The new Taper production, starring Patrick Heusinger as Max, Andy Mientus as Rudy and Charlie Hofheimer as Horst, Max’s love interest in Dachau, is dutifully close to the original.

“So maybe he added a comma, then took it away!” Kaufman jokes.

“You have to stay true to who you were then,” Sherman responds.

Kaufman’s staging of the play, however, is slightly more assertive that the original Broadway version. Taking advantage of the Taper’s thrust stage, Kaufman has the actors who play Nazis occasionally encroach upon the audience’s space.

“When we first got into costume – and, again, I’m the child of a Holocaust survivor – I walked in and saw these actors I love dearly dressed as Nazis,” Kaufman says. “It took me days to be able to speak to them! I was terrified. And I wanted the audience to feel what I felt.”

There is also a surprising amount of levity in the play, zingy one-liners and Jake Shears, of the pop band Scissor Sisters, as the cabaret drag queen, Greta. (Mick Jagger played the role in the 1997 film adaptation of “Bent,” which Sherman wrote and starred Clive Owen as Max. “Family Ties’” Michael Gross played Greta on Broadway.)

The role is Shears’ theater debut, and he performs just one scene, but it’s a critical one that depicts the colorful, freewheeling tenor of the Weimar Republic.

Shears composed new music, along with Lance Horne, to go with Sherman’s lyrics to the song, “Streets of Berlin,” which he performs in the play. Shears belts out the tune as he’s lowered from the ceiling, wearing a glittery dress and perched on a golden cradle.

“I always thought the role should be played by a rock star,” Sherman says. “And that scene – it just marks the Weimar Republic. Then it all ended, abruptly, under the Nazis.”

Kaufman says the play’s complex layers, along with a moral dilemma at its core – the struggle to survive versus standing up for who you really are, no matter the consequences – is what gives “Bent” its universal appeal.

“Martin gets to the human heart,” Kaufman says. “It’s really about about two people finding one another in these most unbearable of circumstances.”

“That’s why the play has survived all these years,” says Sherman, close to tears. “Because it’s a love story.”

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