“The Play is the Thing”
A review of
At the Cort Theatre
June 20, 2017
by Moshe Bloxenheim
INDECENT is a biography: The protagonist is born, grows up, has some trouble in adolescence, moves beyond parental control and has many discoveries.
The main character is also a play – THE GOD OF VENGEANCE written by Mr. Sholem Asch in 1907. Created as an indictment of religious hypocrisy and the piety that glosses over terrible actions, THE GOD OF VENGEANCE takes place in the home of Yekel, the owner of a bordello. He and his former prostitute wife Sarah have raised their daughter Rifkele in the strictest respectability, planning for her to marry a Rabbinical Scholar and even commissioning the writing of a Torah Scroll in honor of such a future marriage. Though Rifkele is forbidden to enter the brothel basement of the family home, she has visited there and befriended Manke, one of the women who work for her father. The two girls are drawn together and Rifkele runs away with Manke. When Rifkele is brought back, her enraged father – stripped of his devout pretensions – drags her off to work in his basement.
THE GOD OF VENGEANCE begins its life in the Yiddish Theater as a well-received drama. Once in New York, like many immigrants, it tries to adapt to a more mainstream society only to lose its way and become the subject of an infamous obscenity trial. Abandoning Broadway, THE GOD OF VENGEANCE thrives, lasting beyond the demise of the Yiddish Theater that had nurtured it, and the author who has eventually turned his back on it. Many issues are bought up by the play as it is produced through the years: Idealism that is crushed by reality, a desire for more realistic literature, a need to face unpleasant facts and the fear of trouble that publicizing such truths can cause a people.
Ms. Paula Vogel wrote the play INDECENT, but it is very hard to separate the superb story telling of her script from the inventive direction of Ms. Rebbeca Taichman, which makes it understandable why they are both billed in the Playbill as the creators of INDECENT. With THE GOD OF VENEGANCE as the star, the actors take on their roles as in a traditional Yiddish Repertory: One actor plays all the older gentlemen, another covers the youthful men while a seasoned lady takes on the women of maturity, etc. Performers flow from scenes about Mr. Asch’s play into actual passages of THE GOD OF VENGEANCE as it gets played in one of its many productions. Mr. Asch and other characters are shared out by the actors so a young Sholem Asch and his wife are first introduced by youthful performers and as time passes the more mature players take them over. Traditions of theater are both invoked and turned on their heads. Expositions are acted out most convincingly and projections (brilliantly designed by Mr. Tal Yarden) set the places of the action and of the languages being used in a way that amazed me. INDECENT is true theater of alienation, and it would have made Mr. Bertolt Brecht green with envy.
With the shifting nature of the roles, it is not so easy to give my usual breakdown of actors in the show, but be assured that the troupe of INDECENT is a truly fine one.
Mr. Tom Nellis is memorable as the senior actor covering dignified scholars, noted actors, the older Sholem Asch and leading a delightfully surprising turn as a Berlin cabaret performer. He is a new person in practically every scene, even to the point of being a different actor performing Yekel in THE GOD OF VENGEANCE as it passes through its various presentations.
This is also true of the other members of the cast. Ms. Katrina Lenk fascinates as a flirtatious star in the first staging of THE GOD OF VENGEANCE and takes on other people as INDECENT dictates.
Similarly Mss. Mimi Lieber and Adina Verson suitably play many characters – some of whom have to play the same part in the successive enactments of Mr. Asch’s play – with different accents as needed.
As the young Sholem Asch, Mr. Max Gordon Moore provides the idealistic writer who slowly loses his fervor as he begins to second guess his aspirations and motives for writing THE GOD OF VENGEANCE in the face of the Anti-Semitism, Pogroms and the Holocaust that an enlightened world should have prevented.
Taking on a host of roles, Mr. Steven Rattazzi ranges admirably from annoying intellectuals to eager producers.
Adding to the stage as well are the first-rate instrumental and performing talents of the musicians Ms. Lisa Gutkin and Messrs. Matt Darriau and Uri Sharlin. They play the evocative music composed by Ms. Lisa Gutkin and Mr. Aaron Halva (incidentally, at the performance I attended Mr. Sharlin filled in most admirably for Mr. Halva).
There is one acting part that is constant throughout INDECENT: Lemml, the Stage Manager is in many ways the human representative of THE GOD OF VENGEANCE as it travels the world. First seen as a poor relative invited to Sholem Asch’s first reading of his script, Lemml becomes the play’s biggest champion and the one who feels its triumphs and failures the most – even more than Asch himself. Mr. Richard Topol is truly marvelous as he shows Lemml evolving into the voice of THE GOD OF VENGEANCE and the conscience of the doomed Jewish world that brought the play into being. His is a great performance in a special role.
And how does THE GOD OF VENGEANCE perform? Although THE GOD OF VENGEANCE permeates the very fabric of INDECENT we are repeatedly shown only two scenes of the actual play and it is the Rain Scene that is the pivotal piece: Having slipped out late at night to dance in a rainstorm, Manke and Rifkele enter the silent house and express their love for one another – an action that allows them one moment of true joy and hope outside the harsh realities of their lives. In the various reenactments, this scene becomes an emotional escape for many of the portrayers of Manke and Rifkele, culminating in a ghetto staging in Nazi occupied Poland where starving, fearful actors transcend their own misery when the heroines once again rise beyond their daily despair and capture something wonderful. And we are better for this.
Mr. Riccardo’s stark scenery is a fitting setting for the actors who must roam the world and time, aided by Mr. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting and Mr. Tal Yarden’s informative and haunting projections. Similarly, Ms. Emily Rebholz has created deceptively simple costumes that allow the players to inhabit literary salons, nightclubs, rehearsal halls, wartime garrets or even the afterlife. All of these elements, together with the wigs and hair design by Messrs. J. Jared Janas and Dave Bova, give a memorable and occasionally unsettling feeling of peering into a series of forgotten old photographs.
The sound system of Mr. Matt Hubbs provides a good impression of natural sound.
From the title, one might think INDECENT is about the outrage of the subject matter of THE GOD OF VENGEANCE or focuses on the first sexual kiss between two women on a public stage, but instead INDECENT is more about how a classic play rises above the real hardships that can make life itself an indecency. It is this story and the thoughtful and innovative way it is told that make INDECENT a true theatrical event about a theatrical event.
I am a computer programmer, wannabe writer who loves theater and just got into the habit of inflicting my theatrical opinions.
I live in New York. Moshe can be reached at MB1224@aol.com