Brilliantly theatrical and riveting play about the making and unmaking of Sholem Asch’s controversial “God of Vengeance” and its aftermath by Paula Vogel.
Created by Vogel and Rebecca Taichman who also directed, the play uses seven actors to play 40 roles, and an assortment of theatrical techniques from music and dance to 19th century melodrama and 20th century realistic drama. To say that the play, performed without intermission, is riveting is beside the point. Not only is the play an epitaph for the Yiddish stage it also reinvents the art of theater. Its themes are huge: the roots of evil, greed, betrayal, anti-Semitism, censorship, hypocrisy and sexual suppression. The God of Vengeance’s rain scene between the two women is now ranked as comparable to the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet.
On an almost bare platform set, Richard Topol who plays Lemml, The Stage Manager, introduces us to the troupe of six actors (Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi, and Adina Verson) who, when they are introduced shed sawdust, as if being brought back to life. Chameleon-like, the actors change roles from scene to scene, and often accents. Titles are projected in multiple languages on the back wall letting us know when the characters are presumably speaking Yiddish, English, or German. Three musicians, Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva, who co-wrote the original klezmer-style music, and Mike Cohen, play various instruments including violin, accordion and clarinet, weaving their way through the story.
The actual play begins in Warsaw, 1906, when Polish-Yiddish writer Sholem Asch shows his wife Madje the manuscript of his first play, The God of Vengeance which she predicts will be produced all over the world. At its first reading at a literary salon at the home of author I.L. Peretz, all but one of the other readers are shocked by the play which concerns Yekel, a Jewish brothel keeper whose daughter Rifkele falls in love with one of his prostitutes, and the consequences that occur. The readers don’t think that the lesbian love scene can be played on the Warsaw stage.
Only Lemml, a tailor cousin of one of the gathering, defends the play, and he is chosen to be stage manager for the first production. After its success in Warsaw, the play travels to Berlin, St. Petersburg, Rome, and Bratislava. Lemml is finally brought to New York in 1921 (where Asch has relocated) for the first American production with Yiddish stage star Rudolph Schildkraut.
A hit at the Bowery Theater in Yiddish, it is restaged at the Provincetown Playhouse in English in 1922 where it is also a huge success. Its Off Broadway producer, libertarian lawyer Harry Weinberger arranges to move the production to Broadway’s Apollo Theater to reach a larger audience. However, Weinberger requires cuts in order not to offend the uptown audience’s sensibilities. Instead of a love affair between two women, it is changed so that the prostitute attempts to seduce the young girl into a life of prostitution – and this leads to all the trouble.
The day after the opening on March 6, 1923, the producer and the cast are arrested on charges of obscenity and immorality. Indecent follows the outcome of the trial, to the return of some of the actors to Poland, the advent of the Nazis and the Holocaust, and ends in 1952 with the rise of the House Un-American Activities Committee which investigated former Socialists as well as Communists. Woven throughout the play are key scenes from The God of Vengeance leading up to a coup de theatre for the final breathtaking moments.
Taichman’s fluid staging allows for the quick passage of time and space. While all play members of the acting troupe, each shine in various other roles. Max Gordon Moore plays the increasingly bitter and cynical Asch, while Adina Verson plays his supportive and loving wife Madje. She and Katrina Lenk also play the two actresses cast as the lovers who have to hide their own love for each other off-stage. Steven Rattazzi plays a range of roles from lawyer-turned-producer Harry Weinberger to Police Officer Benjamin Bailie to Rabbi Joseph Silverman of Temple Emanu- El who brings Asch’s play to the attention of the authorities. Tom Nelis and Mimi Lieber play all of the older characters including the Peretzes and Rudolph Schildkraut. Even playwright Eugene O’Neill (played by Gordon Moore) puts in an amusing appearance as a witness called for the trial of Asch’s play.
Not surprisingly all of the props come out of the perennial suitcases that are always with these nomadic people, while the suitcases are themselves used as furniture as part of Riccardo Hernandez’s minimalist unit set. Emily Rebholz’s costumes are redolent of the first half of the twentieth century. The lighting by Christopher Akerlind beautifully transforms the stage into the various locales though no props or scenery may be used in the scene. David Dorfman is responsible for the lively choreography which accompanies the several popular songs sung by the cast in various languages.
The production of Indecent now on the stage of the Vineyard is remarkable on many levels, not the least of which is how engrossing it is considering the events are all historical record and the play deals with several serious ethical issues. It is ultimately an extremely moving document of human achievement, betrayal, and destruction. Cheers to Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman and their superb ensemble cast for this memorable theatrical evening. I dare you to not be overwhelmed by the final scene.
Indecent (extended through June 19, 2016)
The Vineyard Theatre in association with La Jolla Playhouse and Yale Repertory Theatre
The Vineyard, 108 E. 15th Street in Manhattan,
For tickets, call 212-353-0303 or visit http://www.vineyardtheatre.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission
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