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.
Remember the Lina Wertmller film Swept Away? Stranded on a desert island, a wealthy woman and a blue-collar man wage sexual and class warfare, their contest of wills a thinly disguised metaphor for the power struggles inherent in society. Sounds academic, but the raunchy, caricatured, and politically incorrect social commentary worked because of Wertmller's wickedly ironic sense of humor. In other words, for all her politics, she never took herself too seriously.
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Paper Flowers adopts a similar premise. Eva (Eileen Engel) has a cozy Miami Beach apartment (the location of the original play was changed from Chile for this production) and a steady job, but she is lonely and in search of love. The Hake (Juan Sanchez, in an overwrought performance) lives on the street without the benefits of a job, a roof over his head, regular meals, clean clothes, or running water with which to wash. Eva craves love because capitalism affords her things but not human connection. The Hake, deprived of those same things owing to capitalism's inequities, is no longer capable of love. When they collide A he carries her groceries home, she invites him in, he stays A they descend into a twisted relationship that ends in the destruction of Eva's abode, her old wedding gown (symbol of an antiquated capitalist institution, no?), and her hold on reality. She succumbs to the Hake's craziness, but it's not his responsibility. Social forces made him this way.
How do I know this bizarro partnership is a stand-in for our social structure? Not due to anything conveyed on-stage, I assure you, but rather from information in the program notes. Frankly, a simpler remedy than the overhaul of our decadent economic structure is needed for this pair's troubles. For instance, a steady diet of psychoactive medication will set the Hake right, while a handful of girlfriends to gossip about sex and play canasta with will cure Eva's ills. (As Eva, Eileen Engel, an unaffected, very relaxed actress, offers some bright moments early on, but she ultimately spirals downward with the rest of the production.)
I know. I'm being hopelessly flip about serious subjects such as homelessness, codependency, loneliness, and abuse. But like the Hake, I am not responsible. The interminably long, literal, and unfocused production, without a shred of dark humor or sinister intensity A either of which would have relieved the relentless monotony A made me this way.
Further news on the Miami premiere of Angels in America: Opening night of Millennium Approaches, part one of Angels, will feature a gala black-tie-optional benefit for Friends of Gusman Center, to help support programs at the historic theater. The $250 ticket price for the Tuesday, April 18, event includes a pretheater reception, a seat for the production, gala patron seating, an aftertheater party, and valet parking. Call 374-2444 to reserve your place. Perestroika, part two of the seven-hour epic, opens on Thursday, April 20, with a benefit for DIFFA and HOPE, two Miami-based AIDS-service agencies. Tickets for the Perestroika premiere cost $250, $150, and $100. Prices reflect seating locations, and all tickets include pre- and postshow receptions at the theater. Call 573-6180 for more information.