World’s Stage brings ‘Bent’ back to Milwaukee

Anne Siegel, Contributing writer

The World’s Stage Theatre Company is one of Milwaukee’s younger theater companies, both in its own age and in the relative youth of its artistic and creative team members. Its latest show is the opposite: an old play both in terms of when it was premiered (1979) and the time period it depicts (1930s Nazi Germany).

But artistic director Gretchen Mahkorn says the juxtaposition makes Bent a perfect fit for the season, dedicated to “unveiling history, striving for justice and leading us onward.”

Bent depicts the persecution of gays by the Nazi regime and was debuted in Milwaukee by the edgy former theater company Bialystock & Bloom 20 years ago.

“The play reminds us that although there have been tremendous advances in gay rights since the 1930s, there have been setbacks, too,” Mahkorn says, discussing the play with director Don Russell. Bent marks their first time working together. The pair were introduced by friends years ago. After seeing some of Russell’s work, Mahkorn knew he was the right person to direct Bent. Russell wasn’t immediately as sure.

“I saw the play performed about three years ago, and I knew I’d have to respect the script and not do what I typically do — which is to deconstruct it,” he says. “I had to come to terms with resisting this impulse and respect the script for what it is — a beautiful piece of writing.”

One of the most defining facets of Bent is its dark tone. Martin Sherman’s play, set in 1934, opens on a gay couple, Max and Rudy. Max chooses to invite a German military officer into their bed on the night Hitler, in order to consolidate his power, sends out orders for high-ranking officers to be assassinated. The guard is murdered in Max and Rudy’s apartment and the two must flee for their lives. 

Max is able to obtain his exit visa, but refuses to leave Rudy. Eventually, they are caught and transported to a concentration camp. Behind the camp walls, they struggle to survive and face the consequences of claiming their own identities.

Russell says he hopes the audience will not just identify with the oppressed gay characters — who are not perfect individuals — but also the Nazis who run the camp.

“I want to reinforce the fact that these were ordinary German people,” he says. “I want to examine the process of what it took for them to behave in the horrific way they did.” 

If Russell is successful, he thinks audience members may find themselves squirming in their seats. “Although the conditions of Nazi Germany are long past, there is still more discrimination than people would like to admit,” he says. “Even in today’s society, we are still in the situation of two steps forward and one step back.” 

The timing seems particularly right to produce Bent now, but interest in the play keeps bubbling up year after year, often with high-profile actors in the lead roles. Ian McKellen had the lead role in the London premiere. Richard Gere appeared in the 1980 Broadway cast. A couple of years later, the play was made into a film, starring Clive Owen and bringing McKellen back in a different role. And it has consistently been produced on stage in dozens of countries.

“I believe what audiences relate to are the play’s universal themes,” Mahkorn says. “People will understand the characters’ wish to rise above the discrimination, the cruelty and to be honest with the world about who they really are.”

Mahkorn says Bent will be staged at In Tandem’s 99-seat Tenth Street Theatre, selected for its intimacy. “We don’t want people looking at this play from a comfortable distance,” Russell says.

ON STAGE

The World’s Stage Theatre Company will perform Bent July 10-19, at 628 N. Tenth St., Milwaukee. The play is best-suited for mature audiences, ages 16 and up. Tickets are $18, $15 for seniors and $12 for students. Visit twstheatre.com for more details.