The glimpses we get into God of Vengeance, the real-life play-within-a-play that’s at the heart of Paula Vogel’s thrilling, stirring Indecent, are audacious, provocative, tender, challenging. And that’s right here in 2018.
Indecent, though, is concerned with the mark that the work — the first Yiddish play to be translated and professionally staged throughout Europe — left on audiences from the time of its 1907 publication through its successful tour abroad to its eventual undoing of sorts on Broadway in 1922. Indecent moves briskly through the play’s creation story, which originally finds a young unknown Sholem Asch (Max Wolkowitz) defending his play to a circle of shocked Jewish peers. His work dares to paint a vivid picture of flawed Jewish characters (it’s set in a brothel), has at its heart a gentle, passionate love story between two women, and ends with a thrilling, controversial scene where the Torah is poised to be desecrated. Asch won’t be swayed by the men who warn him to burn the script, and instead mounts an impassioned case to get it mounted on a Berlin stage.
closes December 30, 2018
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The theater troupe responsible for staging God of Vengeance in its various incarnations, with standout turns from Susan Lynskey, Victor Raider-Wexler, and Emily Shackelford, guides the Arena Stage audience through the twists and turns of Indecent. A play with music, Indecent is periodically spiked with nightclub numbers, traditional Yiddish music, and original songs that all help move along the story.
Seamlessly transitioning in and out of various roles, with artful and brisk scene changes to match, the team eloquently conveys the passion the creative team feels for the work, particularly the special ownership that stage manager Lemml (a heartbreaking Ben Cherry) has for the first play he ever got the chance to hear live (as he reminds us in one gut-wrenching scene, it truly changed his life). Eric Rosen’s production cleverly plays around with language — the actors occasionally flip in and out of various dialects, but it’s often the play’s subtitles (along with the performers’ suddenly more halting delivery) that cue us to which they are speaking in.
Eventually, God of Vengeance meets what seems to be its biggest challenge yet: a shoddily translated Broadway production of the work causes the players to be arrested and the production declared obscene, all with the backdrop of rising anti-Semitism in America and beyond. That might sound like the climax to Indecent, but it’s only the catalyst for the dark turn the play takes, as the events surrounding the Holocaust catch up with the courageous cast when they return to Europe.
God of Vengeance was, of course, a profoundly political work, and there’s something eerily timely about seeing Indecent performed barely a month after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. The events surrounding the play’s eerie, disturbing conclusion don’t feel nearly as far away as they should. In the end, the audience is just as in need as the desperate players on stage are for a final glimpse at the play-within-a-play’s beautiful, rain-soaked vision of two women in love, gently and wondrously discovering each other for the first time.
Indecent by Paula Vogel. Directed by Eric Rosen. Choreography by Erika Chong Shuch. Music Direction/Original Music by Alexander Sovronsky. Set Design by Jack Magaw. Costume Design by Linda Roethke. Lighting Design by Josh Epstein. Sound Design by Andre Pluess. With Ben Cherry, Susan Lynskey, John Milosich, Victor Raider-Wexler, Susan Rome, Emily Shackelford, Maryn Shaw, Alexander Sovronsky, Ethan Watermeier, and Max Wolkowitz. Review by Missy Frederick.