When you visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., you are given papers that look like a passport. The papers provide you with a name and information about a person who lived in Europe prior to and during World War II. One way to experience the museum is to assume some responsibility for this identity, to match the life story of “your person” with the events that the museum’s exhibits document in photographs, text, films and sound recordings. As you move through history chronologically, from the burning of the Reichstag building to Kristallnacht to Auschwitz, and through the museum physically, from city street to train car to gas chamber, you refer to the age, location and activities of your person, as documented in her or his papers. When I visited the museum about five years ago, only one of four in my group of friends had been handed the papers of a survivor. I thought those odds of survival seemed high; remembering that there were and are survivors among us was one of my history lessons that day.
Raleigh Ensemble Players and Thompson-Lynch Company take their cues from this participatory approach to history in their current production of Martin Sherman’s Bent, by employing a method REP artistic director C. Glen Matthews calls a “dynamic environment.” Before the audience members are seated for the play, we are subtly menaced and ordered about by Nazi soldiers. Individuals are singled out and told to stand, sit, or to “move, quickly” as we file into the 1934 Berlin apartment where Max and Rudy live, evocatively but austerely decorated with an overstuffed chair and a period radio.
The scale of this living space is small–it occupies about one fourth of Artspace’s Gallery II–but far from private, as the complexity of the play’s opening moments makes clear.
It is Max’s bad fortune to bring home Wolf, a member of the SA Brownshirts, on the Night of Long Knives. In late June of 1934, Hitler’s SS execution squads “purged” the SA leadership and killed an estimated 200 to 1000 political enemies (many of them Nazis, some of them gay), justifying the murders on the grounds that the men were homosexuals. As the guards herd us into the larger space of a Berlin nightclub for the next scene, the increasing distance between audience and actors provides some relief from the discomfort of observing but not fully participating in Max, Rudy, and Wolf’s reality. Audience members walk at gunpoint from the Berlin nightclub to the woods outside Cologne, and, later, into the train that transports Max to the concentration camp where the second act takes place. Paradoxically, as the physical spaces open up–the camp location for the second act utilizes the entire Gallery–the emotional impact of the work intensifies. The play’s dynamic staging makes clear on a visceral level what the characters communicate through language: Fascism collapses the public and private, the individual and the group, in complex ways, especially for those of us who are the object of its classification, exploitation and extermination schemes.
When the production eliminates the distance between action and audience in such an organic way, when it encourages us to recognize the implications of membership in the disparate group that the audience comprises, it forces each of us to assume a role in the choreography of fascism. We may begin to recognize that both the individual and the social body are effects of power, as French philosopher Michel Foucault noted in a 1975 interview: “Nothing is more material, physical, [or] corporal than the exercise of power . . . the phenomenon of the social body is the effect not of a consensus but of the materiality of power operating on the very bodies of individuals.” Midway through the production, I began to take note of my fellow “undesirables” and to feel guilty when I found a seat during a scene when others were told to stand. I understood why some among us attempted to produce imaginary passports when guards demanded papers. Since we had been asked to participate, it was tempting to think we could do so on our own terms. But we couldn’t. The environment may have been dynamic, but history is not improvisation. Someone else already wrote the script.
No detail is overlooked in terms of the environment of the production: In particular, the lighting and sound design were flawless. Together with the orchestration of the actors (including the guards) and audience within and through the curtained compartments of the gallery, they evoke the surreal sense of lives irrevocably changed, of real time suspended. As Max, Luke Stanhope inhabits a swaggering, square-jawed athleticism reminiscent of the film actor Aaron Eckhart. Sean Brosnahan’s Horst is a breathtaking blend of intensity and integrity. An ingeniously executed motif of confinement links the sets, which exist more as space to consciously occupy than as sensual tableaux to be enjoyed. A chain that adorns Rudy’s beloved hanging plant in the Berlin apartment is multiplied on the screen that decorates the dressing room of transsexual performer Greta. In the second act, the chain is magnified on an appropriately grotesque, superhuman scale as the camp’s electrified fence, the backdrop to Max and Horst’s peculiar and poignant love affair.
This particular motif reinforces the play’s suggestion that we take a second look at the tragic and familiar passage from Berlin’s urban decadence to the concentration camp’s murderous discipline. The play is audacious enough to ask us to consider the Holocaust as both reality and metaphor, as a way of life for Jews, queers, and other “others,” that pre-existed the Nazi regime and has long outlasted it. Paragraph 175, the 1871 law prohibiting homosexual conduct that Hitler revived in 1934 (and expanded to criminalize homosexual fantasies), survived as German law until 1969. The environmental dynamics of the production allow the play to move beyond the fraught distinction between the pink triangle and Star of David–though the bodily implications of that difference during the Holocaust are made clear–to ask questions unthinkable within the racial and spatial hierarchies of Nazi ideology. Bent calls attention to the spaces of power we inhabit on a daily basis as individuals and in groups; to the way we may willingly participate in fascist choreographies; and to the laws that still exist on the books, lest we be too certain about our conviction that fascism first arose in the 1930s and finally disappeared around 1945.