3/7/2020 INDECENT Theatrical Outfit
THE PEOPLE VS. THE GOD OF VENGEANCE
The facts are easily Googled. In 1906, Polish/Yiddish writer Sholem Asch wrote a play. The God of Vengeance was (and is) an indictment of hypocrisy, centered on a Jewish brothel owner who courts respectability by commissioning a Torah scroll and marrying off his virginal daughter to a Yeshiva student. When the daughter falls in love with one of her father’s prostitutes, he casts both the Torah and his daughter into his basement brothel. The play was produced in Berlin in 1907 with popular actor Rudolph Schildkraut. Always controversial for its subject matter and its on-stage lesbian kiss, it was nevertheless very popular and was translated into many languages, including, eventually English.
It’s Yiddish-language production in New York sparked a press war between the more Orthodox Jewish press (Filthy! Indecent! Immoral!) and the more radical press (Moral! Artistic! Beautiful!). Much of the criticism was due to (not misplaced) fears of spurring anti-Semitism, due to its negative portraits of the “underbelly of Jewish culture.” Much of the support was due to its lyrical love story and is condemnation of hypocrisy.
It remained very popular, and in 1923, was staged in Broadway’s Apollo Theater in an English language version, greatly changed (some claim bowdlerized) at the demand of its producer. The production was cut short when the entire cast was arrested on charges of obscenity. The verdict, eventually overturned on appeal, was “Guilty.”
In 2015, American writer Paula Vogel’s play Indecent had its premier. Conceived as a tribute to the tropes of the Yiddish Theatre and the enduring power of theatre in general, it begins with its cast literally rising from the ashes. A man comes forward:
"My name is Lemml. You can also call me Lou. I am the stage manager tonight. Usually, you can find me backstage. We have a story we want to tell you about a play — a play that changed my life. Every night, we tell this story. But somehow I can never remember the end."
And thus begins a fifty-year journey as seen through the lens of The God of Vengeance. A Klezmer-soaked musical tour through the dying (some would say the slaying) of a culture. A passionately lyrical ode to youthful anger and determination. A gently honest portrait of young people in love. A scathing indictment of the indecencies that are censorship, bigotry, and genocide.
And, in Theatrical Outfit’s affecting and effective production, it is a compellingly memorable experience that moves and delights even as it revels in the mechanics and joys and egos that make up a life in the theatre.
Its cast of seven – two “ingénues,” two “middles,” two “elders,” and one Lemml – portray dozens of characters with dozens of accents and in (at least) three languages. The structure allows many dramatic ironies, most noticeably the role of playwright Asch, at first played by “male ingénue” advised by his mentor (“male elder”) to burn his script before it burns the theatre, ultimately played by “male elder” confronting a young student (“male ingénue”) who wants to create a new English translation more closely attuned to the Yiddish original. The same “female ingénue” plays both a Yiddish actress and her American replacement. And “female ingénue” and “female middle” portray Asch’s lesbian couple even as the actresses themselves fall in love, and ultimately provide a hopeful escape that may be more Lemml’s imaginative thinking than an actual re-enactment.
And through it all, a three-piece onstage Klezmer band (Violin, clarinet, accordion) provide the musics of exposition, transition, and redemption.
Playwright Vogel is a genius at creating layers of meaning, of character, of incident. Small snippets of incidental conversation in the early scenes have dramatic payoffs in later “blink of time” sequences. Heroes become villains with a change of costume and accent, villains become heroes with a new (and perfectly placed) “blink of time.” And overriding it all is a feeling of bottomless loss, as Yiddish culture fades into obscurity, as its speakers fall back into ashes, as its works become Anglicized, Americanized, Bowdlerized,
And, indeed, the irony is not lost on the playwright that Indecent itself is part of the decline. Why else would we not even HEAR Yiddish spoken (it’s always English accompanied by the projected caption “In Yiddish”) until the final moments, when we finally see that infamous love scene that so captured Ms. Vogel’s attention, performed in an on-stage rainfall that would not have been possible on the Yiddish Theatre stages, in which two women share a joyously pure moment, a scene we understand perfectly, a moment that transcends language and judgment.
Indecent is directed Mira Hirsch, who also directed God of Vengeance at the Jewish Community Center’s Jewish Theatre of the South in 1998 (where it was condemned by the JCC’s Board of Directors who tried (in vain) to shut it down. She obviously knows the history and “stakes” involved, knows the traditions and tropes of Yiddish Theatre, and, most apparently, knows how to create intimate ensembles and theatrical moments that resonate and appeal.
It doesn’t hurt that her cast hits every note perfectly. Stephanie Friedman and Brandon Michael Mayes are the Ingénues, Christina Leidel and Brian Kurlander are the Middles, and Pamela Gold and Clayton Landey are the Elders, though it must be said that Ms. Gold and Ms. Leidel seem of a similar age, making Ms. Leidel’s Elder characters all the more impressively wrought. And Andrew Benator is Lemml, creating a storyteller who pulls us into his tale, even as he “blocks out the ending,” making its unbearable inevitability tragic in scope.
The Klezmerists (is that a word?) – Chip Epstein (Violin), Eric Fontaine (Clarinet), and Rodger French (accordion) – are full members of the ensemble, often laying down their instruments and becoming characters.
The set and lights and projections by Bradley Bergeron successfully recreate an earlier 20th-century theatre, with elsewhere-scenes perfectly realized by trunks and suitcases and boxes in a style that no doubt reflects their period roots. And when he brings in contemporary mechanics – that climactic rainfall – it is a rapturous joy that makes you want to Gene Kelly a dance, even as the women frolic and embrace in its liquid comfort.
During its climactic trial, the play quotes the original judge’s verdict:
“The defendants have been found guilty of presenting an indecent, obscene and immoral play, exhibition, and drama. Although the theatrical profession is not as exalted as the other literary arts, this judgment still signals that the people of New York State are entitled to morally upright wholesome American drama.”
That these anti-theatre, anti-immigrant paradigms have scarcely faded in the last one hundred years is a true Indecency.
That, at the time these words were spoken, Anti-Semitism in Europe was ascendant, a situation playwright Asch experienced first-hand in many of his trips “home,” leading him to underplay the importance of the trial itself, is a true Indecency.
That Yiddish culture itself has been allowed to fade into obscurity, exemplified by that execrable English translation of Asch’s play is a true Indecency,
What is not Indecent is a gentle on-stage kiss between two women in love.
What is not Indecent is a production this good, this compelling, this memorable.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com @bk_rudy #toINDECENT)