by Lynn on October 28, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the CAA Theatre, until November 5 David Mirvish presents a studio 180 production.

Written by Paula Vogel

Directed by Joel Greenberg

Set by Ken Mackenzie

Costumes by Michelle Tracey

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Thomas Ryder Payne

Projections by Cameron Davis

Musical director, Emilyn Stam

Score and original music by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva

Cast: Matt Baram

Jonathan Gould

Jessica Greenberg

Tracy Michailidis

Dov Mickelson

Sarah Orenstein

Nicholas Rice

Musicians: Laetitia Francoz-Lévesque

Emilyn Stam

John David Williams

An exquisite production of a bracing play about art, resilience and love that never holds back.

The Story.  Indecent by Paula Vogel was first produced in 2015, opened Off-Broadway in 2016 followed by a Broadway run in 2017. It’s a play within a play.

Indecent is about Polish-Jewish writer, Sholem Asch’s 1906 play, God of Vengeance which he wrote in Yiddish when he was 21. Paula Vogel focuses on the trials and tribulations God of Vengeance had from its first reading to productions in Europe, finally a production in New York, first Off-Broadway and then on Broadway, and the scandal from a charge of obscenity brought against the cast and the producer.

Asch wanted to write a play about Jews that did not put them on a pedestal or make them all seem like heroes. He wanted to depict them as flawed but also human. God of Vengeance charts that journey.  So we have a pious Jewish man who lives with his wife and daughter. But he runs a brothel in the basement. He forbids his daughter Rivkele from having anything to do with the brothel or the women who work there. But Rivkele is fascinated with what goes on there and in particular a prostitute named Manke. Over time Rivkele and Manke fall in love and have a passionate loving relationship.

Playwright Paula Vogel then imagines Sholem Asch’s first reading of the play at a local literary Jewish salon and the reaction is almost all negative. The participants are appalled by the lesbian story-line; or think this perpetuates antisemitic stereotypes, and that in one scene the father throws the Torah across the room. Asch is told to burn his manuscript by the irate participants. Only Lemml a tailor, likes the play. He says the play changed his life. Lemml then becomes the stage manager, he is so connected to the play.

What follows is that Asch does not burn his manuscript. The play (in Yiddish) is produced all over Europe to great acclaim with Lemml being the stage manager. And then they take the play, in Yiddish, to New York, first Off-Broadway, then in an English translation to Broadway where the problems began.

The Jewish producer for God of Vengeance was afraid of reactions to some scenes. One cut removed a passionate scene between Manke and Rivkele. This outraged the two actresses who were playing those characters. The police arrested the cast and producer anyway on the charge of obscenity because of the play’s content. They were found guilty and the play closed. Asch was asked to testify on behalf of his play and cast but refused. He had been to Europe and saw the results of pogroms and that sent him into a deep depression and he could not rouse himself to defend his cast and play. There is another deeper, sadder reason I won’t reveal but it haunted Asch for years.

Lemml announced he was going home to Poland because he was sick of having people in America make fun of his accent. And he lamented the treatment of the play in American since it played without incident in Europe.  In 1952 Asch was hauled up in front of the House Unamerican Activities Committee because 52 years before he might have been a socialist. He and his wife were forced to leave America and go and live in England.

The Production. The production of Indecent is complex, layered and beautifully produced by director Joel Greenberg. Ten chairs are arranged along the back row of Ken Mackenzie’s set. The seven cast members and three musicians sit in the chairs. They all rise and walk forward. The first startling image is of the whole cast arranging their arms so that a steady flow of ash drops from their sweatered or jacketed sleeves. What an image, ash could be representative of their late relatives; their dreams falling away. There are so many possible references for the audience, but the main reference line is  ”from ashes they rise.” A beautiful metaphor for the resilience of the Jewish people through the first half of the 20th century.

Cameron Davis’ projections help clarify and simplify the story.  Projections in English with Yiddish underneath it indicates if a character is speaking in English or Yiddish. If it’s English, the characters speak with a Yiddish accent. If the dialogue is in Yiddish, the characters speak in an unaccented voice.

When characters are performing in the play, God of Vengeance the acting style is broad and over expressed, as might have been the style in 1906 etc. When characters are not performing in God of Vengeance, the acting is detailed, layered, subtle and nuanced. I love how director Joel Greenberg made that distinction of acting styles between God of Vengeance and Indecent which is referencing it. Also impressive is Greenberg’s melding of the musicians and actors in his staging, so that musician and actor are woven together, each serving the other. The music enhances the dialogue and the dialogue follows naturally from the music.

The cast is uniformly strong. As Lemml, Matt Baram plays a quiet, understated man, but when he says that the play God of Vengeance changed his life it’s said with a reverence that is compelling and totally believable. Lemml devotes years of his life to that play, doing it the honour it deserves. As Sholem Asch, Jonathan Gould is vibrant and confident. He would have to be to have written such a bold, challenging plays as God of Vengeance. But Asch is also needy for confirmation that the work is good, and he gets that from his loving, supportive wife, played with exuberance by Jessica Greenberg (in one of her many roles). Later when Asch is chastised for not defending his cast and play in court, Jonathan Gould seems rumbled, a bit hunched and consumed with regret because the reason is so  heartbreaking. In the God of Vengeance scenes, Jessica Greenberg as Rivkele is both innocent and sexually alive in her relationship with Manke (Tracy Michailidis). Greenberg gives a sensitive performance of a young woman who is curious, hesitant but so compelled to act on her attraction to Manke. As Manke, Tracy Michailidis is the more ‘experienced’ woman but she too has a tentativeness in this loving relationship with Rivkele. They are both attracted to each other and the sexual bond is strong yet tender. Their love is beautifully realized in the careful staging of their scenes.  

Director Joel Greenberg has created a huge, sweeping yet intimate production that aches with emotion, love and sensuality.

Comment. Indecent is certainly critical of the American reception to God of Vengeance in New York and how it treats people who are different, as Lemml’s line about his accent indicates. The play is also a charting of the treatment of Ashkenazi Jews through the first half of the 20th century and their resilience.

Indecent certainly brings up all manner of questions regarding anti-semitism. I love the play and the ‘landmines’ all through it. These are tricky times, with the obvious rise of anti-semitism. Paula Vogel certainly addresses that when she has a character challenge Sholem Asch when he says he does not want to put the Jewish people on a pedestal and depict them as heroes. The character says that anti-semites will have another reason to pillory the Jews because of the play. Vogel makes one look cold-eyed at such a suggestion. How does one stare down anti-semitism? Does one try not to make waves, as Sholem Asch was told not to do? Just a quick look at the plays of Paula Vogel would suggest that going quietly and not making waves is definitely not her forte. She wrote a play called How I Learned to Drivewhich is about pedophilia, incest and misogyny.

Does one stir the waters as Sholem Asch did in God of Vengeance in which he wrote about a Jew as a brothel owner, lesbianism and love in many guises. How can anyone even begin to analyze and consider racism in any form. Does one worry what a Gentile might think of this Jewish play as a character comments. Or even be concerned what a Jewish person might think of the play. I love that Paula Vogel gets us to think about these thorny, challenging, difficult questions. At its heart, Indecent is a bracing, thoughtful multi-layered play so worth our attention. Joel Greenberg and his company are giving it a wonderful, fascinating production.   

Mirvish Productions presents a Studio 180 Theatre Production.

Plays until: November 5, 2022.

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes (no intermission)

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