For those living in Nazi Germany, getting tendered a pink triangle was tantamount to being handed a death sentence. Just as the yellow star identified Jewish individuals during the Third Reich, the triangle was affixed to the clothes of those associated with homosexual acts, conduct deemed an aberration in the Aryan nation that was fitting for banishment to a concentration camp.
The pink triangle has remained a potent symbol in gay culture. My first encounter with it was in New York City in the days when the AIDS epidemic raged unchecked. Then, it was part of the ACT UP activist logo, dropped onto a black background along with the ominous slogan, Silence=Death. My city-savvy roommate in the East Village had to school me on its grim historic significance.
The triangle serves as the central visual trope of Bent, Martin Sherman’s stark, hard-hitting play about gay persecution by the Nazi regime. Originally staged in 1979, Bent now receives a soulful, unsettling new production directed by Jay Danner for Threshold Repertory Theatre. Set largely in Dachau concentration camp, it asserts that there is still much to be gained by revisiting those dark days.
When the lights go up at Threshold Rep, we discover a man passed out on an apartment chaise. Max (Patrick Arnheim) wakes to a formidable hangover and no recollection of the previous evening’s activities. His mounting remorse is glibly flitted away by his lover Rudy (Brandon Martin), who is less than forthcoming when Max asks him to fill in his blackouts. Sparingly, Rudy gives snippets of Max’s booze-fueled antics, one of which has made it back to their apartment in the form of Wolf, a scantily clad guest who emerges from the bedroom.
An SS-saturated Berlin is not the wisest place for such indiscretions, particularly if they telegraph homosexuality. Since Max’s link to Wolf has placed them dead-center in the crosshairs of the Gestapo, he and Rudy are forced to flee their home and their Berlin lives. When apprehended, Max lands in Dachau. There, he taps into an aptitude for wheeling and dealing, and trades in a pink triangle for a yellow star, which will afford him marginally better treatment.
In Dachau he befriends Horst (Randy Risher), a fellow prisoner who unabashedly lays claim to his triangle. Max negotiates to have Horst assigned alongside him on a job that the former contends is the best in the camp. It entails the Sisyphean task of repeatedly, endlessly lugging rocks from one pile to another, and then back again.
In a Camus-Beckett mash-up, the remainder of the play involves the deepening exchanges between Max and Horst during their burdened, pointless march from one mound of rocks to the other. Despite the sinister offstage gaze of the guards, the two men salvage shreds of human connection whenever possible, even though the conditions have been designed to dehumanize them. They achieve this profound intimacy without physical contact, and even eye contact, as either would earn a harsh reprisal from their captors. In spite of the camp’s well-calibrated attempts to strip them of heart and soul, bit by risky bit, humanity prevails.
As a whole, Bent is as redemptive as it is heart-wrenching, thanks to the exquisite performances of both Arnheim and Risher. Together, they inhabit a shared, palpable longing that is all the more painful in the face of their constraints. Through this, we come to identify just what separates the living from the dead. It is self-truth, rather than our mortal coil. It’s tough going, to be sure, but all the more meaningful when we bear witness to the terrible beauty that arises from the ashes.
There are other gorgeous moments of the glitzy Weimar variety, too. In the cabaret where Rudy performs, and Max misbehaves, we meet Greta, the vampy, cynical female impersonator (played with heart-aching flair by Jimmy Flannery). Greta’s lip-curling apathy is as much an illusion as her platinum wig. For Max, and many others found in compromised spots during the Third Reich, survival trumps sentiment.
I must add a word of caution on production values. I’m all for modest set design, particularly for a play such as this with a bare-bones setting. However, if you can’t master a trompe l’oeil concrete wall, paint it black. A failed attempt detracts from the hard-won truths of the actors in front of it. I like a scrim, and here it serves a dual purpose to showcase both the cabaret and barbed wire fencing. Please pull it taut, lest my eye be similarly pulled to its insistent ripples, rather the stirring scene downstage.
At any rate, the truths of the story and acting do triumph in Threshold Rep’s noble effort. Through this troubling reminder of times past, Bent illuminates the strides that have been made in gay rights. At the same time, it poses existential questions that transcend sexuality to address the universal stakes of survival.