Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
AIRDATE: NOVEMBER 6, 2009
A pink triangle. The badge of a homosexual in the Nazi concentration camps. Pinned to the striped pajamas. A proclamation of perversion. Ranked even lower than the yellow star of the Jews.
More than a half-million gays were slaughtered during the Holocaust, but their story was rarely, if ever, told. It was Martin Sherman’s 1979 drama, “ Ben t,” that exposed the fictionalized truth, in all its horrific detail. The riveting piece of theater, nominated for a Best Play Tony Award, woke the world up to this hideous chapter of history. And in 1985, when it premiered in San Diego , in a small production at the Bowery Theatre, it woke me up to an alternate narrative. It was this intense drama that inspired me to become a theater critic.
So now, nearly a quarter-century later, the play is back. And it’s no less powerful, searing or unforgettable.
Despite its dark theme, the piece starts out on a light, sometimes comical note. Max is a Berliner, a narcissistic hedonist in the Weimar era, frequenting transvestite clubs, overdoing the alcohol and cocaine. One night, after he brings home a boytoy , to the dismay of his partner, Rudy, all hell breaks loose and life starts to spiral out of control.
Pretty soon, Max and Rudy find themselves on a transport train, and they wind up in Dachau . Max is a self-serving survivor; he’ll do or say anything, moral or not, wrangle any deal, manipulate any situation, to save his own skin. He snags himself a yellow star instead of a pink triangle, and he’s arranged an assignment to what he says is the best work in the camp: a task designed to drive a person mad: he has to haul large stones, one at a time, across a field. And then, lug them back. Pointless, senseless, mind-numbing and meaningless work. For twelve hours a day. With a 3-minute standing-at-attention break every two hours. He shares the drudgery with Horst, a gay man who’s honest about who he is. Their evolving personal/sexual relationship, conducted completely in the imagination, is a wonder of dramatic sleight-of-hand. In the worst of all places, the most horrifying of times, we see that it’s possible to regain your humanity.
The ion and Diversionary Theatre co-production, tautly directed by Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza, is a deep and piercing experience. It gets off to a sluggish start, with some protracted scene changes. But once the action moves to the camp, we’re mesmerized. The ensemble is exquisite and Michael Zlotnik is a marvel, a stunning portrait of mixed and complex emotions as the twisted Max, a man who needed the abomination of a concentration camp to teach him about honesty, compassion and love. It’s a remarkable performance.
If you can handle the thematic barbarity, you’re in for a haunting, virulent, extraordinary evening of theater.
The ion theater/Diversionary Theatre co-production of “ Ben t ” runs through November 22 at Diversionary Theatre on the edge of Hillcrest.
©2009 PAT LAUNER