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

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.”

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 opened 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.

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