By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
Akropolis Acting Company's current production of Bent brings to mind a quote from writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Assaulted by indisputable horrors upon arriving at Auschwitz A skeletal prisoners, frightened screams, whips, dogs, guns, pits where children were being burned alive A Wiesel still did not believe that such things could be happening because, as he said, "We are living in the Twentieth Century, after all."
The Akropolis production of Martin Sherman's drama about Nazi persecution of homosexuals evokes a similar denial, but for a very different reason. In the safety of my theater seat, I witnessed examples of Nazi brutality from a horrified yet intellectual distance. Perhaps, I reasoned, I'm protecting myself from the impact of devastating material. And yet the next morning I trembled as I read a review of the newly published, uncut version of Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. Just looking over commentary about this famous Holocaust document shook me to my core. In the right hands, Bent's stark and probing script has the power to do the same. At times director Allison Scheeren's minimalist staging comes close to unleashing that power, and she elicits very good performances from Ricky J. Martinez (Max) and Jean-Paul Mulero (Horst) in the crucial roles of the prisoners. But with material as psychologically complex as this, the difference between a very good performance and a great one determines the difference between a cerebral reaction to chilling events and a more heart-rending one.
Presented in two very distinct acts, Bent was one of the first contemporary plays to portray gay men sympathetically; it also broke ground for its exploration of homosexuality during the Third Reich, a subject still not tackled often, either in art or scholarship. Act one consists of a series of deftly sketched episodes that conjure up Berlin's seedy gay demimonde. A sinister atmosphere quickly takes over after the campy opening scenes, as Max and his lover, Rudy (a vulnerable portrayal by Nelson V. Walters), realize their lives are in danger and flee to the woods. Eventually, however, they are captured by the SS and transported to Dachau. The second act takes an almost absurdist turn. Max engages in a duologue with another gay man, Horst, as the two move bricks from one end of a compound to another and back again, working, as Horst says, "next to a pit of dead bodies and an electrified fence for twelve hours a day." Bent sent ripples through the 1970s theater world for the scenes in which the incarcerated men bring each other to orgasm without ever touching.
The Akropolis production works in a number of ways. With black walls, sparse use of props, and snippets of music and sound effects, director Scheeren (also lighting and set designer) and Melissa Lawson (sound) create an expressionistic ambiance that mirrors the script's disconcerting events. Scheeren also successfully resists the urge to overdramatize the material, allowing the inherently horrific events to speak for themselves, particularly during the eerily lighted train ride to Dachau, when Max remains silent as train guards beat Rudy. And Scheeren understands that the two orgasm scenes are not so much about sex as they are about how people need to connect with each other, especially under dehumanizing situations. Although the first such scene tends toward the contrived, panting variety of lovemaking, the second, in which Horst entreats Max to abandon his rough ways, is tender and moving.
Max may have ample reason to be paranoid as a gay man in Hitler's Germany in act one, but Martinez's hyper portrayal still seems forced. In act two, Max evolves from an unsuccessful wheeler-dealer scrounging for rent money into a focused subversive who has figured out prison politics. He secures for himself and Horst what he insists are the best jobs in the camp and he connives his way out of wearing the gay prisoner's brand A a pink triangle, which marks one as the most despicable in the camp's caste system. Instead he passes as a Jew and, in a perverse twist, reaps the privilege of that status by wearing a yellow star. Max seems to thrive within the rigid Nazi confines, and Martinez handles that irony well by reining in the character with a controlled performance in act two. Conversely, Mulero portrays Horst more believably in the first act, lending the character a suitably hollow-eyed survivalist mentality. Once inside the camp, however, Mulero's acting verges on the histrionic. Given the challenge of these roles, the two actors deliver admirable, often impassioned performances. Yet they lack the experience to convey the tangled and fixated mindsets of concentration camp prisoners in anything other than the most obvious ways.
During the current season, Akropolis Acting Company's presentations of international, political, or experimental plays have provided theatergoers with the opportunity to see works not often produced in South Florida. Miami Beach's Bridge Theater also fills in a theatergoing blank by offering the works of Hispanic and Hispanic-American dramatists in English. Now on-stage at the Bridge is Chilean playwright Egon Wolff's Paper Flowers, about the relationship between a middle-age woman and a young homeless man. Reportedly, a powerful production of the play was presented in Spanish in Miami not so long ago. I'm afraid something has been lost in the translation to English, at least for this production.