A Taper Play

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

The latest production at the Mark Taper Forum, Bent is a 'Taper play.'

That might sound redundant but over the last few years it's actually something of an oddity. When I moved to LA in the 90's, the notion of a 'Taper play' was already a proud cliché. Both inside and outside Center Theatre Group -- which runs the Taper, Ahmanson and Kirk Douglas Theatre -- theater folks knew what you meant by a 'Taper play.'

At its simplest, you meant, as one can even learn on Wikipedia, a play that's "provocative, political, ... liberal" and usually redemptive. Plays that are connected to our moment and urged, if only implicitly, towards inclusion and social justice. Think plays like Children of a Lesser God, The Kentucky Cycle, Angels in America. At the Taper those were badges of honor. Inside Center Theatre Group's offices there's an old LA Times editorial -- not review -- that's blown up and hung in the hallway as a reminder. A 'Taper play' was significant not only for its subject matter but because it was made here in downtown LA -- not in New York.

In recent years there haven't been as many 'Taper plays.' I won't bore you with all the reasons for that. Suffice it to say, it's a big deal when I say Bent is a classic 'Taper play.'

Bent, written by Martin Sherman in 1979, chronicles the fate of gay men in Nazi Germany beginning at the end of the Weimar's permissive decadence and quickly descending into the brutal insanity of Dachau. That's a tough sell -- gay men in a concentration camp is not an easy night in the theater. But even if you only vaguely remember the play -- maybe for making the pink triangle a symbol of 80's pride and defiance or the beautiful, if mind-numbing, rock moving of act two -- what you might have forgotten is how darkly funny and profoundly moving the play is.

This production, directed by Moisés Kaufman, who's work you know from The Laramie Project and Gross Indecency, shares with those plays both a stripped down beauty and passionate conviction. To say he's the perfect director for this play is hardly an exaggeration. The cast is stunning. The set design turns the Taper's unique scenic challenges into fundamental strengths. The collaboration between lighting designer Justin Townsend, set and costume designer Beowolf Boritt, and sound designer Cricket S. Myers in the creation of a backdrop, that is simultaneously hauntingly beautiful and terrifying, is inspired.

The best news? Bent might not be an aberration. The last two plays in the Taper's season have the promise to resonate with the cultural moment in exciting ways. Maybe I'm being prematurely optimistic, but coupled with the Geffen's new found voice across town perhaps our two big theaters are finally reclaiming their artistic responsibility.

After all, the most important thing about a 'Taper play' is it taught us that theater produced in Los Angeles could matter.

Bent plays at the Mark Taper Forum in Downtown Los Angeles through August 23.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

For the web: 2 hours and 30 minutes with an intermission.

Photo:(L-R) Patrick Heusinger, Hugo Armstrong, Jonathan B. Wright and Charlie Hofheimer in Martin Sherman's Bent, at the Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum.(Craig Schwartz)