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A heartbreaking picture of Nazi Germany’s gay purge feels timely and horrifying

Nick Fitzgerald and Corey Thompson suffer through unspeakable horrors in Bent. Photo credit: Changing Scene Theatre Northwest

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The best thing that the Changing Scene Theatre Northwest's production of Bent does is take its time getting us to know and like its characters before plunging them into horrific situations. Once we get to the really awful stuff, we've spent enough time with decent people to truly feel the impact of how far they fall. And make no mistake: given Bent's subject matter, there is no honest place for the play to go, other than deep into the most despicable realms of humanity. Set between 1934 and 1936, in Germany, Bent zooms in on the Nazi government's rise to power, and specifically their rounding up of gays to lock up in concentration camps.

First, we meet Max and Rudy (Nick Fitzgerald and Jason Quisenberry), a gay couple who live and work in Berlin. This opening scene is an extended one, leisurely and light-hearted, with the two waking up to discuss what nonsense Max got into at the club the night before. Little is even hinted at, when it comes to the horrors that they and Germany are about to experience. Fitzgerald and Quisenberry don't even feint at German accents, unlike the SS officer (Paul Sobrie) that eventually knocks down their door. From there, Max and Rudy find themselves on the run, getting reluctant assistance along the way (in a dual role, Eric Cuestas-Thompson plays both Rudy's night club boss, and Max's closeted uncle).

Running can only last so long, though, and we soon find ourselves on a train, and eventually to a concentration camp, where we meet Horst (Corey Thompson), a man who's been burdened with the dreaded pink triangle, and who knows the ins and outs of how to survive imprisonment. Max, too, is handy at scamming his way out of situations, and Bent becomes a game of getting by, and of clinging on to whatever shreds of dignity the camp leaves its prisoners.

This is tough material, and as the three leads, Fitzgerald, Quisenberry, and Thompson imbue their characters with vast amounts of vulnerability and robust internal lives; their charm and pathos does wonders in balancing a script that, while definitely tragic and worth telling, sometimes has a tendency of being overly maudlin. Basically the entirety of act two is staged with the prisoners carrying heavy stones back and forth across the stage -- an effective illustration of the madness of their predicament, but also a fairly static image that might grow tiresome without soulful performances to buoy it.

As the frightening SS officers, Sobrie and Joseph Magin cut striking silhouettes, and every time they enter a scene, the air is sucked out of the room. Bent director Pavlina Morris never let go of the sensation that cruel, senseless violence is around every corner. For the prisoners, this means following every ridiculous rule, in the hope of emerging on the other side unscathed. Bent makes no bones about its cultural relevance in these perilous times, but neither does it offer any easy answers, except to warn how bad things can still get.

BENT, 7:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday, through May 26; 6 p.m., Sunday, May 20, $15-$20, Dukesbay Theater, 508 6th Ave. #10, Tacoma, 253.350.7680,

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