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Highway to Hell

Bent is unblinkingly harsh, immensely moving and ultimately cathartic

We're in Berlin. It's the end of June 1934. Hungover Max (Steve Bullitt) can't remember the trick he's brought back to the apartment he shares with his lover, Rudy (Brady Alland), a dancer at the drag cabaret. He was coked up and drunk when he propositioned his latest anonymous conquest, Wolf (Christopher Clark), one of the Nazi Brown Shirt thugs in the notorious SA. "Your own little storm trooper," Rudy calls the strapping Wolf. Rudy isn't happy with threesomes or Max's growing enjoyment of sadomasochism, but he'd rather have Max around than not. Opportunistic, selfish and blissfully unaware of the social upheavals occurring in Germany, Max is about to descend into hell. This morning-after will become known as the Night of the Long Knives, when a paranoid Hitler methodically and brutally eliminated the high command of Ernst Roehm's SA. The man knocking on the apartment door isn't the landlord demanding back rent, but the SS looking for Wolf. Wolf is slaughtered, and Max and Rudy flee for their lives.

This shattering beginning to Martin Sherman's Bent is Max's first circle of hell. He and Rudy run to the only shelter they know, Greta's drag club. In silk top hat, platinum bob, fishnet stockings and man's tux coat, Greta (Chris Pool) is a butch, low-rent version of Marlene Dietrich; as it turns out, he sold out Wolf for a few Reichsmarks. Now the SS wants Max and Rudy for questioning. Near hysterics, Rudy can't comprehend the evils enveloping them. He just wants to go home and water his plants. "But I live here, this is my home," he cries. Greta's club is under suspicion, and he doesn't want any trouble with the Nazis. "I'm not queer," he sneers at them. "You're like Jews -- unloved." Greta orders them out. In blinding self-denial, he assumes he'll be safe: He's married with children.

For two years, Max and Rudy live as outcasts in the woods near Cologne, "suffocating in the open air" with others like them. Max has a plan -- he always has a plan. Estranged from his immediate family, he contacts his gay uncle Freddie (Taavi Mark) for forged passports and documents. Freddie offers Max one ticket to Amsterdam. Max refuses. It's not for love of Rudy, he protests -- it's that he feels "responsible" for him. Naive and sweet, Rudy can't handle it alone. Rudy needs Max. Self-assured to a fault, Max doesn't need anyone. "Love is bullshit," he proclaims proudly. He will soon realize, to his horror, how wrong he is.

Max and Rudy are arrested in the woods. On the train to the concentration camp at Dachau, Rudy is savagely beaten by the sadistic guards. Alland's offstage screams are hideously chilling. In an act of utmost cowardice yet heartless survival, Max denies Rudy's friendship, denies his own gayness and is forced to beat him, also. The blows kill Rudy. At the camp, more horrors await.

It will be Horst (Sean Greene), a fellow prisoner and former nurse, who leads Max away from his self-absorbed abyss. Act II is Max's re-education into humanity. And in the play's most famous scene, the no-sex sex scene, Max and Horst make love standing ten feet away from each other, using the power of words and their imagination to connect and feel each other.

Uncompromising, highly theatrical and at times fiercely melodramatic, Sherman's 1979 Tony-nominated play is a compendium of the horrors inflicted on gay people by the Nazi regime. History's headlong spiral into degradation and the absolute incomprehension of man's inhumanity to man is not the special province of any one group affected by the Third Reich, but by focusing on the forgotten history of the GLBT community and its abysmal treatment under the Nazis, Sherman clears our gaze and shows us in frightening relief how Max, Rudy, Greta, Horst and Freddie could have been us. Presented in the quasi-sacred space of Houston's Holocaust Museum, Sherman's emotionally draining drama reverberates with seriousness and power. In the intimate stage space, the wire-tight tension feels physically present.

Played against expressionistic glimpses of Saul Balagura's painting Plowing Stones (seen in its entirety at the harrowing, liberating conclusion), abetted by Pat Padilla's evocative costumes and Jim Wunrow's less-is-more lighting design, each scene inexorably tightens the work's grip around our hearts. Under Joe Watts's forceful and intelligent direction, Bullitt, Greene, Alland, Pool and Mark deliver beautifully shaded performances that bring Sherman's play to life in a way that is unblinkingly harsh, immensely moving and ultimately cathartic. However painful, Theatre New West's production of Bent is a stunning tribute to remembrance and a stirring call to arms.

 
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