“This play changed my life,” proclaims shtetl tailor-turned-stage-manager Lemml (Ben Cherry) in Paula Vogel’s incandescent Indecent, and as you look up in wonder at the candle and stage-lit faces in Baltimore Center Stage’s extraordinary production you know exactly what he means.
This is as good as it gets, readers. Vogel’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize-winning play is rich and humane, blending song, dance, Yiddish, English, traditional theater conventions and modern meta moments into 100 transformative minutes that feel hushed and holy like a religious service, yet teeming with tenacious life and the force of a voice that refuses to go silent.
If you ever need a reason why theater is important, even crucial, in our lives, Indecent will give you that and so much more. Based on “the true story of a little Jewish play,” Indecent is both a Star of David-shaped billet-doux to the lost art of Yiddish theater and literature, and a universal epistle about the power of theater to untangle the words written deep inside our hearts.
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Indecent goes from Poland in 1906, across Europe and then to New York in the 1920s, back to Poland in World War II and also uses blinks in time that either move the play forward or magically suspend it in dream-like limbo.
It recounts the controversy surrounding the play God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch, which was produced on Broadway in 1923, for which the cast of the original production was arrested on the grounds of obscenity. The play was ahead of its time in Asch’s full-born portrayal of women, as well as its daring depiction of prostitution, Jewish-run brothels, and the rendering of a lesbian relationship between a prostitute and the virginal daughter of the brothel owner as pure and lovely instead of puerile or titillating.
closes March 31, 2019
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A hit in Europe, which didn’t blink a monocle at the lesbian scenes, God of Vengeance brought out the worst in America—intolerance, long-simmering anti-Semitism against Jewish immigrants, as well as homophobia. We sent Asch’s “dirty” play and its Polish troupe back to where it came from—Europe, where the play was performed over and over, including in secret in the Lodz Ghetto. This was a light that would not be extinguished.
In light of the recent rise in hate speech, anti-Semitism, racial intolerance and vile jingoism in this country, we are reliving the 1920s to McCarthyism and beyond—apparently learning nothing. The whole notion of returning America to “real Americans” again, walling off areas to keep the “undesirables” within, and the looks of bald-faced righteous hatred on the faces of the oppressors and condemners is as shudders-inducing now as it was in the time period of Indecent.
Still, they rise. In the opening scene, the troupe of actors and musicians playing multiple roles rise from the ashes of time to brush the dust off their sleeves and tell their story before fading back into the shadows like a dream you can’t shake off.
There’s almost an incantatory rhythm to this production, spellbindingly directed by Eric Rosen. The actors and musicians move in ritualistic circles and percussive patterns as they evoke the past with gravity and grace. Klezmer music—violin, clarinet and accordion—wails, wrapping like wisps of smoke around Jack Magaw’s backstage set piled with suitcases, chairs and props.
This ritual motif is reinforced by repeating dialogue and scenes, which take on different shadings and emotion at every reverberation. Yiddish translations are projected on screens, but the play’s glimmering power has you understanding what the actors are saying and singing after a while, even if you are as goyim as the day is long. The exemplary cast–Ben Cherry, Susan Lynskey, John Milosich, Victor Raider-Wexler, Susan Rome, Emily Shackelford, Maryn Shaw, Alexander Sovronsky, Jake Walker, Max Wolowitz—move with fluid purpose and conviction in a variety of roles, breathing new life and nuance to the often chant-like dialogue and scene structure.
One scene in particular grows in stature and meaning each time it is presented. It is the “rain scene,” which is compared to the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet for romance and giddy innocence, as the prostitute (Susan Lynskey, radiant and assured as a world-weary presence in numerous characters) dances and canoodles in the rain with her fawnlike love, the brothel owner’s naïve daughter (Emily Shackelford, quicksilver bright in this and a variety of roles). The rain serves as a cleansing of their abusive pasts and as a sort of benediction for their relationship—one of discovery, lightness and escape from censure.
It is a beautiful scene in any language, but it really tears your heart at the end, where the rain scene is presented in Yiddish, its native tongue. The words may not be familiar but they dance like the girls in the rain–free of constraints and out in the open where the air is fresh and clean and love can be expressed in a voice without shame.
Indecent by Paula Vogel . Director: Eric Rosen. Featuring: Ben Cherry, Susan Lynskey, John Milosich, Victor Raider-Wexler, Susan Rome, Emily Shackelford, Maryn Shaw, Alexander Sovronsky, Jake Walker, Max Wolowitz. Choreographer:Erika Chong Shuch. Music Direction and Original Music: Alexander Sovronsky. Scenic Designer: Jack Magaw. Costume Designer: Linda Roethke. Lighting Designer: Josh Epstein. Sound Designer: Andre Pluess. Projection Designer: Jeffrey Cady. Kurt Hall: Stage Manager. A co-production of Baltimore Center Stage, Arena Stage and Baltimore City Rep. Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.