‘Bent’ by Zeitgeist Stage Company

‘Bent’ Written by Martin Sherman; Directed by David J. Miller; Scenic Design: David Miller; Lighting Design: Michael Clark Wonson; Sound Design: J. Jumbelic; Costume Design: Tyler Kinney. Presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company at the BCA Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont St., Boston through October 11.

If every theatrical play is, at its heart, a love story, can the same be said of ‘Bent’, Martin Sherman’s brilliant work about the persecution and internment of homosexuals by the Nazis prior to World War II? The answer is a resounding “Yes”. Zeitgeist Stage Company is giving this classic “gay” play it’s first professional revival in 30 years, and the results are astounding, largely due to the efforts of director David Miller and its two leads, Victor L. Shopov and Brooks Reeves as well as Mikey DiLoreto and the rest of the cast. Love can indeed triumph, even in the most dreadful of circumstances. This production is alternately horrifying and moving, with a few amusing scenes worked in that keep the audience from becoming too deeply entrenched in the misery of the play’s setting.

The play opens with Max (Shopov) recovering from a brutal hangover while his partner Rudy (DiLoreto) attends to him. Initially, it is difficult to determine what time period the play is set in, as there is talk between the two of Max’s drunken night at the club (with references to cocaine use) which he cannot recall, especially the part where he has again brought home a new partner, whom he meets (naked) as if for the first time in the living room. So the setting could easily have been 1980 Manhattan, at least as the play opens. Soon after, it turns out that the boy toy that Max has brought home for the evening is also a stormtrooper wanted by the SS, who come pounding on the door looking for him. Max and Rudy flee the apartment as the SS brutally deal with their target, and their lives will never be the same.

Max and Rudy return to the club at which Max embarrassed himself the night before, where club owner and (heterosexual) drag performer Greta (a bitchy and convincing Ben Lewin) tells them they must leave Berlin or risk their lives. It is here where we see the nature of Max emerge – a manipulative, driven, and seemingly selfish schemer – whose greatest victory in life appears to be “making deals” that will save him pain or bring gain with a minimum of effort on his part. Shopov, who has been a mainstay in Zeitgeist productions over the last few years, shines in this complex role. Max will do anything to survive (or just come out on top) but may not be the self-centered scoundrel that he likes to portray. The scenes where Max counts to 10 to overcome his mental suffering are especially revealing. DiLoreto is also convincing in his role as the almost helpless Rudy, who stands by his man no matter how poorly he appears to be treated.

The play really takes off when Max and Rudy are put on the train to an internment camp, because it’s also where Max meets Horst (the equally terrific Reeves) and where the most horrific scenes take place. (This play is not for the overly squeamish.) Reeves is a perfect counterpoint to Shopov’s intense Max, at one point matter-of-factly stating his love for his fellow prisoner, which angers Max. “Queers aren’t meant to love,” he snaps. The scenes where the two men find a way to express their affection for each other right under the watchful eyes of the guards are among the most powerful, and in lesser hands than Reeves and Shopov, might have been a tough sell.

The sets are spare but effective, particularly the concentration camp, and the sound design by Jumbelic<!–[if gte mso 10]>