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Powerful 'Bent' as relevant as ever

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"Bent"

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When "Bent" premiered in London's West End in 1979 with Ian McKellan and in 1980 on Broadway with Richard Gere, hardly anyone knew about the persecution of homosexuals during the Nazi era. In a way, Martin Sherman's play and later 1997 film of the same title opened the eyes of the world to the horrors of what happened to gay men when confined to concentration camps. Lesbians were generally not seen as a threat to the state compared to effeminate males that might not be able to serve the state as soldiers or provide offspring to strengthen the Fatherland.

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Today, the knowledge is more commonly held that being forced to wear a pink triangle (an indication for all the world to see that the wearer was a practicing homosexual) was a likely death sentence. Yet, "Bent" went further than most Holocaust-era plays. It essentially said that homosexuals were so loathed and so unnecessary to the Thousand Year Reich of Hitler's Aryan vision that they were at the lowest rungs of the social strata, even lower than the reviled Jewish "race."

Since opening the Mid City Theatre near the American Can Company complex, owner and director Fred Nuccio has chosen to get behind several works in which he feels a personal commitment to the local theatre audience. "Bent" is his latest presentation and he handpicked a worthy cast of mention.

As Horst, Christopher Ramage, whose physical frame has made him a favorite for tough guy roles, is cast opposite Kyle Woods, as Max, who has matured as an actor from his tentative days as a featured performer at the former Actor's Theatre of New Orleans. Max is a survivor and chameleon, who cares about his loves and lifestyle until he has to make deadly choices brought about by the times and the society in which he lives.

Ramage, as Horst, the gay man who accepts his fate willingly, plays wonderfully off the conniving Max character portrayed by Woods. Once cast together, the two characters begin a relationship that eventually includes imagining intimacy with one another, because to so much as touch one another would be cause for death at the hands of the Nazis. It is their consummate skills as actors that a scene where the two imagine intimacy is thoroughly believable. In the hands of lesser actors, the scene might not have carried as much gravitas.

Levi Hood tenders a nice performance as Rudy, Max's vulnerable lover with whom he shares an apartment in Berlin just prior to the "Night of the Long Knives." That night, which was the Kristallnacht for German homosexuals, refers to the overthrow of Hitler's right hand man, Ernst Rohm, the leader of the S.A. (brownshirts). Rohm, who was a known homosexual with complete devotion to Hitler, was, nonetheless, ordered killed and all of his political kin were made suspect as collaborators in a trumped up plot against Hitler. Hitler then used the opportunity to establish persecutory laws intended to outlaw homosexuality and eliminate known gathering places for gays and lesbians.

As a "straight" owner and performer at one of these watering holes and meeting places, Bob Edes, Jr.'s character turns in a top notch rendition of Cole Porter's "Love for Sale" early on in the play. Later, in Act II, Edes is called upon to portray a sinister Nazi captor with a malicious intent on killing.

Also of note is Michael Sullivan, who plays Max's Uncle Freddie, who like him fancies a fling with a young boy toy, but is much more discrete and closeted than his nephew. He offers Max a way out, but only for him, not for Rudy. When Max, out of loyalty to his inexperienced lover, refuses the papers and a way out of Germany that his uncle has provided, he sets up the couple's eventual capture by the Gestapo.

"Bent," which is a pejorative term for homosexuality, may be a period play, but its overwhelming message of the spirit of man rising above the banality of impossible situations is still very much of import to today's audiences of 35 years past its debut. Nuccio's staging is stark, but consise. The costuming is good and, while there is a bit of promiscuous nudity hither and yon, it is presented in a tasteful fashion.

This story, though, is anything but tasteful. This message of man's inhumanity to his fellow human being shouts to the audience. Jewish audience members know the Nazis professed profound hatred to them. Many, however, will never know that to be an avowed homosexual was considered by the Nazis to be lower than the lowliest Jew. To be Jewish and homosexual meant wearing a yellow star with a pink triangle at the bottom, an almost certain death sentence under the Nazi administration of justice.

Max's compulsion to survive sends him down a path where he perpetrates a Jew and has to prove that he is not a homosexual to the satisfaction of his Nazi tormentors by practicing a deviant sexual act with a female corpse. When Max develops feelings for Horst, the reasons for the subterfuge become less important. Ultimately, at the end of the play, Max has accepted who he is and where he must take his stand.

A powerful and gripping play, "Bent" offers tremendous performances that still can be seen at Mid City Theatre, 3540 Toulouse Street, on Thursday and Saturday nights at 8:00 p.m., Friday night at 11:00 p.m. and a final show on Sunday evening at 6:00 p.m. Call 504-488-1460 for more information or click here for tickets.

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