Some people love that time and place to be elaborately portrayed, but some of my favorite theatre occurs on a bare stage, where a magical combination of cast and text creatively combine to tell a compelling story.
Such a play is now on stage at the La Jolla Playhouse, in a co-production with Yale Repertory Theatre (whose presentation took place in October). Indecent pays tribute to Yiddish theatre and to one of its creative lights, Sholem Asch. Mr. Asch wrote the play God of Vengeance, which was a sensation when it debuted in Warsaw and later ran successfully in New York's Yiddish theatre community.
God of Vengeance challenged audiences' beliefs and cultural sensibilities. It was set in a Jewish brothel, and it portrayed its characters sympathetically. The daughter of the brothel owner even eschewed an arranged marriage with a Hebrew scholar in favor of a lesbian relationship, and this love relationship was portrayed in the play, particularly in a scene that takes place in the rain. The play also showed sacrilege being committed against the Torah, often a Jewish family's most prized possession. One would think that audiences might be outraged, but apparently Mr. Asch's writing swept them up instead.
Indecent shows its audiences some of God of Vengeance, but it is more interested in what is going on behind the scenes against a background of Jews suffering through pogroms, persecution, and, ultimately, holocaust. Mr. Asch escapes to New York and leaves God of Vengeance behind in favor of writing novels. The play survives the Warsaw ghetto and is also produced several times by Yiddish theatre companies in New York. It is eventually translated into English, but a Broadway production is spoiled by a moralistic rewrite and a charge of obscenity made by a New York rabbi against the cast of that production.
Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman share a "created by" credit, even though Ms. Vogel is also credited as the playwright and Ms. Taichman as the director. "Created by" is accurate, however, as the text and the production seemingly could not exist without the other. Ms. Taichman creates theatre magic using all of the elements that can transform a bare stage into other places: lighting effects (designed by Christopher Akerlind), costume pieces (designed by Emily Rebholz) that slip on quickly to signal a shift of character, music (composed by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva and directed by Mr. Halva), scenic effects (designed by Riccardo Hernandez), sound effects (designed by Matt Hubbs), and, most of all, projections (designed by Tal Yarden and Keith Skretch). Ms. Vogel's text sometimes appears in those projections, both in English and Yiddish, as are her stage directions (most notably the recurring "a blink in time"), invaluable for understanding the play and its flow.
Most important, though, are the people on stage, including both actors and musicians. It seems unfair to single out any one performer, as the effort is an ensemble one involving seamless acting, singing, and dancing (to David Dorfman's choreography). But, Richard Topol singles himself out by introducing himself and his castmates during the 105-minute play's initial scene. Mr. Topol calls himself the "stage manager," but it quickly becomes clear that his character is the one who will bridge the various incarnations of The God of Vengeance, serving as both its cheerleader and its conscience.
Ms. Vogel and Ms. Taichman have reputations for being artists with strong visions, and Indecent finds both in top form. While few would find God of Vengeance to be indecent today, this classic of Yiddish theatre still has the power to disturb, disrupt, and, most of all, to provoke. It also, as Indecent clearly demonstrates, has the power to delight.
La Jolla Playhouse presents, in association with Yale Repertory Theatre, the world premiere production of Indecent. Performances continue eight times a week through December 10, 2015, at La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Theatre. Tickets and more information are available at www.lajollaplayhouse.org or by calling the box office at (858) 550-1010.
Created by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman, written by Ms. Vogel, and directed by Ms. Taichman.
The actors are Richard Topol, Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi, and Adina Verson. The musicians are Lisa Gutkin (also a composer), Aaron Halva (also, a composer and music director), and Travis W. Hendrix.