Martin Sherman’s play “Bent” traces the persecution of homosexuals under the Third Reich — and evolves into a love story that testifies to humanity’s endurance.
“Bent,” the senior project for Connor Lounsbury ’14, opened at the Whitney Humanities Center’s Whitney Theater last Friday. The play, which is being directed by Molly Houlahan ’14 and produced by Emma Hills ’14, follows the life of a gay man named Max living in Berlin in the 1940s. Max (Lounsbury), and his lover, played by Cody Kahoe ’15, are pursued by the Gestapo and are sent to the Dachau concentration camp, where Max falls in love with another man.
“You expect a Holocaust story to be deep, indulgent, grotesque, violent and awful,” Houlahan said. “[“Bent”] focuses on the human and emphasizes the love story in the context of this brutality, as opposed to just brutality.”
When “Bent” was first produced in 1979, Sherman was one of the few individuals to shed light on the Nazis’ persecution of homosexuals. But both Houlahan and Lounsbury emphasized that though the storyline takes place in a concentration camp, at the play’s heart are the love story, and the different ways in which individuals discover themselves and each other.
Houlahan described Max’s development throughout “Bent” as a “journey of opening up to love.” At Dachau, Max meets a gay-rights activist named Horst, played by Tim Creavin ’15. As survivor having trouble expressing his love, Max learns to navigate his inner turmoil and realizes that staying alive may not be the most important thing, Lounsbury said.
Despite the dehumanizing situation the characters find themselves in, Houlahan said, humanity, love and faith triumph.
Hill said that it is often easy to produce a Holocaust play that emphasizes the horrors of that period to the point where the characters themselves are overshadowed. Unlike other, more realistic plays, Houlahan said “Bent” is “abstract, surrealist and lyrical,” pushing the boundaries of art and language. Hill added that this style helps emphasize the moments in the play that highlight human emotions.
As the play progresses, the relationship between Max and Horst becomes defined by conversation and imagination, Houlahan explained. The two cannot touch or look at each other while performing menial camp work under the watch of the Nazis, but they can talk to each other as well as think about each other.
“Language and realism degenerate and devolve as they land in the camp,” Houlahan said. “By the time they are in the concentration camp, things are no longer literal. They’re almost occupying space where words have infinite power and create things.”
The set also captures the abstract nature of the play, she said, as it features a webbing of cables and wires as well as fabric of different shapes.
In addition to its intellectual and artistic features, Houlahan said that the play may appeal to Yale students because she thinks the University’s gay community will show interest in the story. Lounsbury said he thinks many students will be able to relate to the aspect of the plot that deals with love, adding that Max “does a lot of things a 21-year old at Yale might do.”
“It’s a really amazing production: beautiful, sad, horribly depressing, but it’s really powerful,” Hill said. “There’s something very empowering about seeing a show that leaves you drained.”
“Bent” will run at the Whitney Theater through Saturday.