Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Polish-Jewish writer Sholem Asch was born at the tail end of the "enlightenment" of central and eastern European Jews known as the Haskala. In 1906, Asch, already known for short stories and novels, wrote his first play, God of Vengeance. It involves a brothel operated by a Jewish man named Yekel, married to Sarah, a former prostitute. Yekel desperately seeks respectability, a wish he projects onto his daughter, Rifkele. To this end, he fervently keeps her away from the working women in the basement below the family's apartment, commissions an ornate Torah scroll to serve as a sign of her virtue, and arranges her marriage to a respectable young man. However, Rifkele had fallen in love with one of the prostitutes, Manke, a relationship that is both tender and frankly physical.
Indecent imbeds excerpts from Asch's play into an account of its creation by the idealistic playwright, encouraged by his forward-thinking wife, its success in Berlin, and other progressive Yiddish cultural hubs in eastern Europe, to Asch's immigration to the United States in 1910 and the successful staging of God of Vengeance amid New York City's flourishing Yiddish theater scene. God of Vengeance is translated into English and presented at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village where it reaches new, approving audiences. But in 1923, producer Harry Weinberger pushes too far by opening the play on Broadway, where it faces a much broader public. The play is shut down and the cast and producers arrested on charges of indecency.
If this sounds like a full disclosure of the plot of Indecent, I assure you it is merely the frame upon which Vogel laces her characters, both imagined and historic, with their own struggles and desires in relation to Asch's play, both to the storm surrounding its production and to the content embedded within. Vogel layers so many themes that it kept my mind engaged long afterward. Among these are the inspiration that moves an artist to create and its counterweight, the burdens that deflate creative drive, as Asch's relationship with the fruit of his own fertile mind is markedly altered as it advances up toward mainstream success. We see the challenge facing artists trying to shift from their spoken language, Yiddish, to ply their art, whether on page or stage, in strange foreign tongue: English. We witness the nourishment that art provides and the inextinguishable urge to create, in even the worst of times. We are moved by an image of pure and innocent love, debased by a society fixated on laws beyond the control of mortals. All that, and more.
Director Wendy C. Goldberg presents Indecent as a non-stop journey, cradling us through the troubling and hopeful paths taken by Asch, his actors, and his creation. The setting designed by Arnulfo Maldonado is a wonder in its own right, using the thrust stage to create a dusty wreck of a once grand theater, with red velvet seats facing us, ornate plaster work, and a dome overhead from which a chandelier most likely once hung. Anne Kennedy's perfectly rendered costumes span the traditions of eastern European Jewry and the stylish look of 1920s theater folk. Josh Epstein's lighting uses shafts of light to represent the anguish of waiting, be it for a new life or the end of life, while Alex Basco Koch provides projected titles in English and Hebrew that eloquently identify the language characters are speaking (we hear it all in English), their location, shifts in time, and historical context.
The cast of seven actors is sometimes joined by the three onstage musicians in playing some forty roles. The musicians are fully integrated into the storya violin (Lisa Gutkin), clarinet (Pat O'Keefe), and accordion (Spencer Chandler), creating traditional Klezmer sounds as a backdrop to the play, as well as performing some full-out numbers, including a ribald Berlin cabaret scene, a swath of the sound of Broadway to contrast God of Vengeance's arrival uptown, and a heartbreaking lullaby, "Wiegala," composed by Ilse Weber, a nurse who cared for Jewish children at Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Gutkin, who co-composed the original music with Aaron Halva, was music director of the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions, a role she repeats at the Guthrie.
The actors form a seamless ensemble, casting light on the joys and sorrows of each character they play. Ben Cherry seems most central as Lemml, a young Jewish man from rural Poland who attends the first reading of God of Vengeance and is stage struck, attaching himself to Asch and becoming stage manager of all future productions of the play, which has forever changed him. Cherry captures Lemml's passion for art and for truth, which becomes a constant chord running through Indecent. In the play-within-a-play scenes of God of Vengeance, Robert Dorfman is Yekel, Sally Wingert is Sarah, Miriam Schwartz is Rifkele, and Gisela Chípe is Mankeall four giving Asch's original work powerful interpretations that lend credence to the sensation the play caused. The actors playing the two older characters, Dorfman and Wingert, exhibit the more exaggerated gestures and declamatory style of that era (think of the actors in silent movies), while Schwartz and Chípe, as the two lovers, are more natural and lyrical. The contrast drives home the old and new order of morals and desires.
Hugh Kennedy plays Asch, authentically conveying his transition from idealistic upstart playwright, to disillusionment with the commerce of the theater, to despair for the fate of his people. Steven Epp stands out as a stuffy old-school actor and as the show-boating producer, while Gisela Chípe's portrayal of an actress who makes a career of playing Manke is wrenching. Miriam Schwartz is especially moving as an actress unable to transition from Yiddish to English. As for Sally Wingert, her proven ability to shift, chameleon like, from character to character, is put to wonderful use.
It is easy to surmise that Paula Vogel took the name Indecent from the legal charges filed against God of Vengeance. What of the title Sholem Asch gave his play? Near the end of act one, Yekel vows to forsake his sinful livelihood once he earns enough for a handsome dowry for Rifkele, and wants to know if God will then forgive him. The scribe who has created Yekel's Torah scroll offers "Who can tell? Our lord is a God of mercy and forgiveness, but he is also a God of retribution and vengeance." In his choice of title, Asch suggests which manifestation of God stares down upon Yekel. In the course of Indecent, Vogel suggests that it is not Asch's play, but the hypocrisy, avarice and hate residing in human institutions that is indecent. Yet, she manages to leave us with a slender ray of hope, a reason to believe, as Lemml does, that a work of art can change lives by casting light on the possibility of pure love.
After productions at Yale Repertory Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse, Indecent opened at the Off-Broadway Vineyard Theatre in New York in 2016. In 2017, that production re-opened on Broadway (following the path of Asch's play) where it ran for four months and was nominated for the Tony Award as Best Play. The Guthrie secured the rights to the first post-Broadway production of Indecent, but this heart-stirring blend of history, artistry, theology and sensuality will no doubt find its way to stages across the nation. I can't imagine, though, a better production than the one now on the Guthrie's Wurtele Thrust Stage.
Indecent , through March 24, 2108, at the Guthrie Theater's Wurtele Thrust Stage, 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets from $29.00 to $77.00. Seniors (65+) and full time College Students (with ID) - $3.00 and $6.00 discounts. Public Rush for unsold seats 15 - 30 minutes before performance, $25.00 - $30,00, cash or check only. Gateway tickets for eligible low income patrons, $5.00. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or go to GuthrieTheater.org.
Playwright: Paula Vogel, inspired by "The People vs. The God of Vengeance" conceived by Rebecca and Rebecca Taichman; Director: Wendy C. Goldberg; Music Director, Co-Composer, Yiddish Coach: Lisa Gutkin; Co-Composer: Aaron Halva; Choreographer: Yehuda Hyman; Set Design: Arnulfo Maldonado; Costume Design: Anne Kennedy; Lighting Design: Josh Epstein; Sound Design: Kate Marvin; Projection Design Alex Basco Koch; Dramaturg: Jo Holcomb; Vocal Coach: Jill Walmsley Zager; Casting Consultants: McCorkle Casting, Ltd.; Stage Manager: Jason Clusman; Assistant Stage Manager: Michelle Hossle; Assistant Director: Martin Damien Wilkins; Assistant Choreographer: Adin Walker; Design Assistants: Lisa Jones (costumes), Ryan Connealy (lighting), Reid Rejsa (sound); Production Assistant: Madilynn Garcia; Rehearsal Violinist: Susan Crawford.
Cast: Spencer Chandler (Accordion), Ben Cherry (Lemml the Stage Manager), Gisela Chípe (Actor), Robert Dorfman (Actor), Steven Epp (Actor), Lisa Gutkin (Violin), Hugh Kennedy (Actor) Pat O'Keefe (Clarinet), Miriam Schwartz (Actor), Sally Wingert (Actor).