Imagine my surprise when I took a seat inside Fort Worth's Sage & Silo Theatre for a revival of Bent, Martin Sherman's pioneering if now somewhat quaint 1979 drama about the Nazi persecution of gay men, and watched as a nationally known porn star strolled on-stage. The program insert didn't contain a biography, but without discussing my video collection in detail, let's just say no one had to clue me in--or most of the rest of the audience, either--to who Chris Steele was. I suppose the shock would've been greater if the Dallas-based star of Uncle Jack and Steele Pole had decided to trade in his birthday suit for the grimy, pink-triangled prison garb of Sherman's Berlin "perverts," sent to camps and assigned grueling tasks and tortures even lowlier than the yellow-starred Jews they lived among. But for the 10 minutes or so Steele was under the lights, he was buck, buff, and monosyllabic. In the last few years, stage productions starring porn stars and featuring faux plots, simulated sex, and lotsa frontal nudity have toured a circuit that includes Houston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. It's just that porn stars who make naked cameo appearances in plays about 20th-century atrocities are, well, less common.
No moral outrage here. Steele just added a surreal element to a first act overflowing with tepid brutality and amateurish performances. (His, interestingly, was far from the worst of them--that distinction belongs to J.R. Peacock as a villainous drag performer. Still, Mr. Steele's stage skills won't be revealed with just a handful of lines--tan lines, that is). Director John Templin, co-founder of Sage & Silo with his partner Jeff Sprague, favors scripts with gay themes, although he's happy to throw his audiences a curve ball now and again--late last year, he directed and starred in an endearingly dog-eared version of Cotton Patch Gospel. Part of the Sage & Silo charm is its "I've got a curtain! I've got a barn! Let's put on a show!" pure love of theater, the fact that Templin and Sprague build the sets themselves with couch change. But it's possible to forgive deficiencies in shows as diverse as Gospel and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, if only because the scripts for both actually benefit from a certain scrappiness--the stark if admittedly outdated Bent requires a level of professionalism to convey its grim violence sans sensationalism that Sage & Silo doesn't possess.
Templin is trying, though, because he managed to snag Dwight Sandell, an Equity actor who's distinguished himself in a number of Fort Worth shows, to play Horst, a labor camp inmate with insurrectionist tendencies who's at first disgusted, and then smitten, with Max (Ethan Ward), a perpetual schemer who'll do anything to survive, including participate in the murder of his previous lover and swap minority identities, claiming he's there for being a Jew rather than gay. Basically a two-man show, the second act generates some moving exchanges--Sandell and Ward stir up a sweet chemistry as they find ways to make love without touching that presaged the early '90s phone-sex stage hit Jerker. Still, any actors who assume these roles are almost as doomed, artistically speaking, as the characters they play. There's no denying the place of Bent in world theater, as it was the first concentrated dramatic expression of the presence of gay men on Hitler's Final Solution program--homosexual victims were ignored for more than three decades after the Holocaust. But being first sure doesn't mean being best, and the cloying martyrdom that enshrouds these ill-fated lovers detracts from the greater sadness of their frailty as humans who had nowhere to turn--not religion, certainly not their own fragmented and frightened community--to escape their stigma.