It’s been clear for some time that Victor L. Shopov is one of the most dynamic actors in Boston.
In Zeitgeist Stage Company’s production of Martin Sherman’s “Bent,’’ directed by David J. Miller, Shopov fortifies his reputation still further with a mesmerizing, multilayered portrayal of a gay Berliner who learns what he is capable of — for ill and for good — as he fights to survive the barbaric cruelty of the Nazis in 1930s Germany.
The London premiere of “Bent’’ in 1979, quickly followed by a Broadway production starring Richard Gere, greatly enlarged public awareness of the fact that the Nazis waged a campaign of persecution against homosexuals, sentencing thousands to captivity in prisons or concentration camps.
Lest audiences be tempted to console themselves with the thought that the extremities of “Bent’’ belong to history and not the present day, Miller has penned a program note that cites the “recent acts of violence against gays in Russia, Uganda, Saudi Arabia, and other parts of the world.’’ Any Americans who feel comfortable holding homophobic attitudes would also find “Bent’’ instructive: Among other things, it might prompt them to think about the possible consequences of demonizing others.
Zeitgeist is no stranger to challenging material. Under the leadership of founding artistic director Miller (who also helmed last season’s excellent production of “The Normal Heart,’’ starring Shopov as anti-AIDS activist Ned Weeks), Zeitgeist’s operational ethos could be boiled down to: minimal budgets, maximum impact. In the latter regard, Miller ups the ante even more with this wrenching, suspenseful, moving, at times devastating production of “Bent.’’
Although he’s staging Sherman’s play in a different venue than is customary for Zeitgeist (the BCA’s Plaza Theatre rather than the Plaza Black Box Theatre), Miller skillfully engenders a claustrophobic atmosphere. The unflinching directness of his approach leaves the audience nowhere to hide. So we get a visceral sense of the dread and terror and exhaustion, physical and psychological, that are experienced by the characters onstage. And we are equally close to the manifestations of compassion and love that keep humanity alive in the face of all the brutality they endure.
Shopov plays Max, the hard-living, manipulative, sexually adventurous scion of a wealthy family, from whom he is estranged. Max — who is involved in a relationship with Rudy, a dancer portrayed by Mikey DiLoreto — prides himself on his ability to work the angles, to cut deals, to live on the edge, and to remain emotionally detached through it all.
In July 1934 Max brings home a young man named Wolf, played by Diego Buscaglia. (The scene includes nudity.) It turns out that Wolf is a member of Hitler’s Brownshirts, and when Nazi officers arrive to seize him as part of the purge called the Night of the Long Knives, Max and Rudy are plunged into a waking nightmare.
They flee Berlin, but are eventually captured and forced aboard a train that’s transporting prisoners to Dachau. During this sequence, Miller and lighting designer Michael Clark Wonson keep the stage steeped in a shadowy twilight, heightening the sense of a darkness rapidly falling over the world. Among those on the train is Horst, a gay prisoner portrayed by Brooks Reeves. He explains to Max the Nazis’ color classifications, which include a yellow star for Jewish prisoners, a red triangle for political prisoners, and a pink triangle — like the one Horst himself wears — for homosexuals. “Pink’s the lowest,’’ he informs Max.
So Max decides to deny his homosexuality, to deny who he is. “I’m going to stay alive,’’ he says grimly. Claiming to be Jewish, he tries to procure a yellow star for himself before they arrive at Dachau. (There’s a grim and grotesque irony in the fact that this is Max’s goal, of course, given that millions of Jews lost their lives in the camps.) Later, when Max describes what he did to persuade the Nazis that he was not gay, Shopov endows the scene with a marrow-freezing power.
It’s not the only unsettling scene in “Bent,’’ not by a long shot, but Miller’s trust in the material extends to its silences. He does not try to accelerate the action in Act 2, during nearly all of which Max and Horst carry rocks back and forth across a yard at Dachau, enclosed by an electrified fence. The director unsparingly drives home the monotony and drudgery of their task, forcing us to consider the limits of human fortitude. But the production also lifts the heart with its depiction of the love that takes root between Max and Horst, in the stoniest imaginable soil.
As Horst, Reeves is a poignant portrait in vulnerability, decency, and resiliency, while DiLoreto touchingly conveys Rudy’s transition from carefree confidence to abject fear. But it is Shopov — playing a character whose capacity for change, for becoming his best self, is a central question hanging over the play — who carries much of the moral weight of “Bent.’’ As usual, Shopov is more than up to the task.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.