In Hitler's infernal version of geometry, a pink triangle was worth less than a yellow star. Yellow stars were affixed to the Jews. Pink triangles were the badges of the homosexuals, the "fluffs," who are the subject of "Bent," a harrowing play by Martin Sherman that is getting its area premiere at Source Theatre.
In several respects, the production marks an escalation in Source's fortunes. Even the weakest performance is presentable, and as Max, a reckless German homosexual who learns integrity in the awful confines of a concentration camp, Paul Norwood acts with great reserves of strength. Although the material is incipiently sensational, it has been soberly and responsibly directed by John Jacobsen. And despite the built-in limitations of Source's quarters, the six individual sets -- from the sleaze of a nightclub dressing room to the stark rigor of a prison yard -- are persuasive for the space.
In addition, Source is demonstrating its gumption by devoting its time to a work of necessary, but undeniably painful, insights. With Richard Gere, "Bent" enjoyed a modest run on Broadway two seasons ago. It is probably all too graphic a play in some of its actions and language, however, to achieve wide popular success. Locally, Arena might not shy away from it, but it's unlikely the Kennedy Center would touch it. Where more prudent angels of the theatrical variety fear to tread, Source has rushed in.
And the rashness pays off even though, structurally, "Bent" may not be all that adroit a play. The first act is an episodic accounting, complete with a music hall drag number, of the sordid circumstances that lead to Max's arrest and imprisonment. The second act is almost out of Beckett -- a lean description of the Sisyphean labors of Max and Horst, the fellow prisoner who becomes his lover in spirit, if not in flesh, as they move a pile of boulders, one by one, back and forth across the stage. The two acts are cut from different bolts of cloth and the scissoring shows.
Still, Sherman is touching upon some raw, sensitive issues -- not just the Nazis' shocking persecution of homosexuals. He is tracing the moral awakening of an individual. At the start, Max is an opportunist, quick to betray and eager for the sexual kicks he is usually too hung over to remember the following morning. Arrested through a series of coincidences, he succeeds in convincing the Nazis that he is a Jew, not a homosexual, and consequently qualifies for marginally better treatment at Dachau. The only humane relationship of his life will be with Horst (played with straightforward simplicity by Steven Dawn) and it will occur under the steely eye of the guards. Horst's humanity proves catching. At the end, Max will openly acknowledge his homosexuality, thereby growing in stature and sealing his doom at the same time.
On one level, I suppose, the play could be read as a grim manifesto about coming out. It certainly constitutes a chilling cautionary tale about a satanic form of political repression. But if you can get beyond the immediate particulars, "Bent" is also endorsing the life-sustaining properties of love. Horst and Max, harnessed to a mindless, back-breaking routine, can talk only during their three-minute rest periods, or when they pass one another in the course of their endless chores. But within the rigid patterns of the camp, they succeed in forging bonds of trust and understanding.
In the evening's boldest sequence, the two -- standing apart, gazing straight ahead -- unite in an act of mental lovemaking that actually culminates in orgasm. It is not an easy scene to watch, almost too personal for the stage. But in a curious, even elevating, way, it glorifies the mind's ability to triumph over the harshest realities. Storm troopers may remake the world, but so, momentarily, may men in love.
In a less accomplished production, "Bent" could be shrill and unsavory. Taste prevails at Source. Following the leads, the supporting actors handle their roles with commendable restraint, eschewing the opportunities for cheap melodrama. Stephen Mottram is touching as Max's first love, a prissy dancer who is changed into a bewildered little boy by the flick of a Nazi riding crop. Stuart Lerch is quiet perversity in blond wig and Blue Angel drag, while Richard Mancini, as Max's timid uncle, suggests the frissons of forbidden desire under his respectable business suit.
Source has a tendency to spread itself far and wide, hence too thin. With "Bent," it has focused its energies on an aberration of history terrifying to ponder. The focus counts. You will leave the theater shaken and disturbed, perhaps, but significantly more aware than when you went in.
BENT. By Martin Sherman. Directed by John Jacobsen; sets, Thomas Ziegler; lighting, Gary Floyd. With Stephen Mottram, Paul Norwood, Hans Bachman, Stuart Lerch, Steven Dawn, Richard Mancini. At the Source Theatre through Feb. 20.