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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Powerful Production of
Martin Sherman's Bent

Also see Richard's reviews of Karen Mason and Wesla Whitfield

Bent
Matt Weimer, Clayton B. Hodges
and Enrique Vallejo

The Theatre Rhinoceros is currently presenting a powerhouse production of Martin Sherman's  Bent, a modern classic of love in a dangerous time. Artistic Director John Fisher has gathered a superb cast of young actors playing three homosexuals who flee for their lives and discover the true nature of pride in the mist of living terror in Nazi Germany during the '30s.

I first saw the potent play in a memorable production at the Vaudeville Theatre in London with a young and relatively unknown Ian McKellen playing the sexually promiscuous Max, and Tom Bell playing the more conservative gay Horst. I saw the New York production at the New Apollo Theatre during the winter of 1980 with Richard Gere playing Max and David Dukes taking the role of Horst. Michael Gross made his Broadway debut as the drag queen Greta in that production. The drama was made into a movie with Clive Owen playing Max and Lothaire Plateau playing Horst. Ian McKellen had a small role playing Uncle Freddy in the British film.  

Bent is a great, searing and frightening drama with prefect structure, suspense, character development and political perspective to make a statement for tolerance in today's society.

In the opening scene of Bent, we see a small flat with a coffee table and plants about. It looks like a typical middle class apartment you might find in the Mission District. The scene starts out like a typical gay comedy-drama with wheeler dealer Max (Clayton B. Hodges) who loves coke and one night stands. He is a bit of a drunk also and does outrageous things when he is high; he is not interested in the beginnings of the new social order in Germany.  His roommate is the fanatically neat Rudy (Enrique Vallejo), a dancer in gay clubs. We learn well into the scene that Max has brought home a trick named Wolf (Michael Vega). At this point we see that this is 1934 Berlin and the trick is a German soldier on vacation. Suddenly there are heavy knocks on the door and two Nazi S.S. Officers (Paul Dana and Damian Lanahan-Kalish) break into the apartment and kill Wolf for unnatural sex.

The first act relates to Max and Rudy as they try to escape to the Netherlands border since the Nazis are now harassing homosexuals. However, the two are captured in a homeless tent camp near the border and taken by train to Dachau. Max has his first of many shocking debasements when he is forced to deny knowing Rudy as a Nazi officer goads him into killing his frail friend to prove he is not gay. Max gets a Jewish star which is just one step higher than a pink triangle in the concentration camp. Horst (Kevin Clark), an older homosexual, befriends Max and tells him to keep his mouth shut if he wants to survive.

The second act opens on a courtyard guarded by an electronic fence that kills an inmate instantly and a ditch full of the bodies of the dead inmates. Max is assigned the maddening job of taking a pile of heavy rocks from one side to the yard to the other and then taking those back to the other side for 12 hours a day with a 3 minute rest period every hour. This apparently is a better job than the pink triangles get and he bribes a guard to have Horst as his partner in this mad work process. The second act is a tour de force between Clayton B Hodges and Kevin Clarke in some of the most riveting scenes as Max and Horst blossom into unusual lovemaking based on suggestive dialogue and creative imagination, without any physical touch or even an exchange of looks between the two. This is an amazing performance by the two actors.

Clayton B. Hodges (Lillies, The Real Thing and A Christmas Carol at ACT) is incredible as he changes his personality from being a swinger to a man who has finally found his pride in being gay. He is absolutely convincing in his performance. Kevin Clarke gets the full potential of his demanding role of Horst in the second act. Both give mesmerizing performances as they carry the rocks back and forth across the barren stage.

Matt Weimer (his 12th performance at the Rhino) shines briefly as the drag queen Greta in the first act. He is refreshingly reptilian, declaring that he is not gay since he has a wife and two children. Greg Lucey (Single Spies, Medea the Musical) gives a nice performance as the sophisticated Uncle Freddy. Michael Vega gives a rapacious performance as the trick, Wolf. Damian Lanahan-Kalish and Paul Dana are plainly malicious as Gestapo officers and S.S. Guards.

John Fisher has given the production a fast pace, even with some uneven curtain changes by members of the cast, though this is only a minor problem. His staging of the second act involving the carrying of the heavy rocks is outstanding. Jeremy Cole's costumes are period perfect also. 

Bent runs though January 7th at Theatre Rhinoceros, 2926 16th Street between Mission and South Van Ness, San Francisco. For tickets call 415-861-5079 or visit www.TheRhino.org.


Photo: David Wilson


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema



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