Dreamwell’s “Here I Stand” season tells the stories of those who stand up against oppression, unjust circumstances, or impossible odds. These plays are testaments to the human spirit, the courage to look evil in the eye and refuse to live on its terms. The stories are often quite tragic, as this type of stance requires great sacrifice. In all of these ways, Bent is an excellent selection for exploring this theme.
The time is 1934; the place is Berlin. The protagonist is Max (K. Michael Moore), a homosexual man with a nose for cocaine, a penchant for dancing on tables, and a talent for picking up strangers. The Night of the the Long Knives is about to explode, and Max and his lover Rudy (Bryant Duffy) are about to fall prey to an era of systematic cruelty the likes of which the world has never before seen.
Despite this dark material, it’s fun to watch Max. He’s clever, he’s charming, and he’s able to con his way out of almost any situation. Whether it’s scrounging the rent or soothing his jealous lover, Max always has a plan or is about to think of one. He’s something of a scoundrel, and he certainly has his demons, but it’s a roguish sort of charm that reminds us that the human spirit will persist in the face of adversity – indeed, it will only become more creative when pushed into a corner.
The type of adversity Max faces down later, however, is one of unimaginable cruelty. Dachau is not only a place that makes the stomach turn, but it’s a place of horrifying creativity. The schemes and systems used to prove the superiority of the “master race,” the unspeakable choices the prisoners are given between death and humiliation, and the cold, wry humor of the SS guards all speak of a brilliant and inventive mind twisted and turned against itself. It feels like the stuff of comic-book super-villains, and it’s all the more terrifying when you remember that Dachau really existed.
The later scenes are as terrifying as the early ones, but in an entirely different way. The first act is quick and brutal (though Duffy and Moore seem to stumble a bit in the beginning); the second act is slow, contemplative, and maddeningly repetitive. The structure of Bent mirrors the duality of human cruelty.
The second act is cold, measured, sadistic. The structure of Dachau is intended to break them, and the characters start to crack as the action plods along. But in this same terrifying circumstance, there’s also room for rest, for reflection — and for love. Max and Horst come to terms with each other, even more so because Max has to come to terms with himself, and Horst will not stop challenging him. They prop each other up, even though they can’t touch each other.
The script is a showcase of Martin Sherman’s incredible craft, and an effective production would not be possible without careful direction by Angie Toomsen and dedicated acting from many of the performers. K. Michael Moore’s Max is intriguing to watch. It’s a complex arc, as Max is so uncomfortable with himself, and he learns that his greatest crime is his refusal to admit who he truly is. He redeems himself, in the end (else we couldn’t have a “Here I Stand” play), but the journey is long and arduous. It requires both physical stamina and emotional range from the actor. Moore is excellent at both, and his early conniving moments are as vicariously fun as his heart-felt moments of love are moving. His face becomes very open when he interacts with James; in his beaming smiles we see a brand new Max, and this simplicity, openness, and love is exactly what’s needed to defeat humiliation and degradation.
Matthew James is a very attentive scene partner, and his creativity and subtlety are very effective here. Horst loves Max, but he doesn’t accept his faults. His slightly warm, ironic sense of humor is a relief in this black-and-white world, where the only color comes from their badges of shame. He understands that the world is too complex to be reduced to black and white, gay and straight, good and evil. “There are queer Nazis,” he says. “And queer saints. And queer mediocrities. Just people. I really believe that… that’s why I’m wearing this triangle. That’s why you should be wearing a triangle.” Horst is able to help Max grow because he’s the first person to truly challenge him, not with cruelty but with simple love.
James’ physical choices are very effective, both in the erotically charged scene were Max and Horst make love without touching, and in the later scenes where Horst’s health begins to deteriorate. In the end, he stays true to his love for Max, and his very death is an act of defiance.
The ensemble did an incredible job of supporting the two leads. Per Wiger, Kevin Burford, Bryant Duffy, and Kehry Anson Lane each played multiple roles in Berlin and Dachau, filling out the setting. Lane was particularly effective both as drag queen Greta and as a quiet but powerful SS officer with a secret.
The set, a collaboration between Angie Toomsen, Avonique Tipsword and K. Michael Moore, is imaginative and versatile while still being quite efficient.
Modular backdrops serve as a visual reminder of oppression, whether they bear the text of Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code (the outlawing of homosexuality), planks to represent a train car, or barbed wire to represent the borders of Dachau. The rock-moving scene is simple but highly effective, making excellent use of the natural levels at the Universalist Unitarian Society. The costumes (by Stephen Polchert) are chilling and realistic, and the fight choreography (by Avonique Tipsword) is brutal, graphic, and intensely dramatic. Dreamwell’s Bent is an excellent rendition of a magnificent script, and I encourage you to go see it.
Just make sure you bring a packet of tissues.
Bent runs through June 9 at the Universalist Unitarian Society, 10 S Gilbert St. in Iowa City. Tickets are $13 ($10 seniors and students). Be advised that the performance features violence, nudity and adult themes.