Stage Door Review

Indecent

Sunday, October 23, 2022

✭✭✭✭

by Paula Vogel, directed by Joel Greenberg

David Mirvish & Studio 180, CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge Street, Toronto

October 20-November 6, 2022

“From ashes they rise”

David Mirvish is presenting the Toronto premiere of Indecent (2015) by Paula Vogel, staged by Studio 180 under the direction of Joel Greenberg. Indecent tells the story of the play The God of Vengeance written in Yiddish in 1906 by Sholem Asch (1880-1957) from its inception through its acclaim throughout Europe to its closure on Broadway when it was called “filthy”, “immoral” and “indecent”. Vogel’s play is also about the people who supported and attacked Asch’s play, now considered one of the great works of Yiddish drama, one that Vogel’s play will make you long to see.

The action moves from 1906 to 1953 when Asch and his wife Madje left the United States to return to Europe. In depicting the history of one famous Yiddish play, Indecent engages us with a dazzling array of themes – political, sexual, religious and historical – and though only 100 minutes long has the richness of and detail of a novel. Indecent is beautifully designed, insightfully directed, powerfully acted and wonderfully enhanced with live klezmer music throughout.

Asch wrote The God of Vengeance (דער גאָט פון נקמה) to show a side of Jewish life that had never before been put on the stage. Asch’s play concerns a Jewish brothel owner Yekel, who is consumed with the notion that his daughter Rifkele remain a virgin. He tries to make himself and Rifkele respectable by purchasing a Torah scroll and he has enough money that a matchmaker is able to find a young yeshiva student who will marry Rifkele. To his horror, he discovers that Rifkele has fallen in love with Manke, one of his prostitutes. The scene where Rifkele and Manke declare their love for each other during a rain storm is considered the most beautiful in the play. The play ends with Yekel, all his dreams destroyed, going mad, ordering Rifkele to work in the brothel and throwing the Torah after her saying, “I don’t need it anymore”.

From just this brief synopsis it is easy to see what made The God of Vengeance so powerful and so controversial. Asch’s play was not the first to show a parent as brothel-owner who wanted a better life for a daughter. George Bernard Shaw asked if money earned through prostitution was tainted in Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1902). Asch’s play, however, shows the tragic side of the same question.

Asch’s play was also not the first to include lesbianism. Austrian playwright Frank Wedekind featured an overtly lesbian character in his two Lulu plays, Erdgeist (1895) and Die Büchse von Pandora (1904). Asch’s play, however, portrayed lesbianism in a positive light and became the first play to show a lesbian kiss onstage in New York. The other source of ire directed at Asch’s play is Yekel’s desecration of the Torah.

Vogel has a scene where Asch visits the renowned Yiddish writer I.L. Peretz (1852-1915) find out his opinion of the play. Many of those gathered for the play-reading refuse to read their parts, and Peretz’s advise to Asch is “Burn it”.

Instead, Asch goes to Berlin where the famous director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943) agrees to produce the play and the acclaimed Jewish actor Rudolph Schildkraut (1862-1930) is eager to play Yekel. The production is a huge success causing it to be translated and staged from St. Petersburg to Constantinople. Vogel depicts this success by having a city’s name projected on the stage while the same players perform the very last lines of the play.

The play has gained such renown that Schildkraut’s theatre troupe takes it to the United States. When the play ran at a theatre in Greenwich Village, it caused no problem. Only when it moved to the Apollo Theatre on Broadway were there fireworks. Fifteen days into the run the entire cast, the producer and one of the theatre’s owners were indicted for violating the state's Penal Code and later convicted on charges of obscenity. The chief witness for the prosecution was Rabbi Joseph Silverman (who appears in Vogel’s play) and says, “Even the greatest anti-Semite could not have written such a thing”. 

The conviction was successfully appealed but most of the cast returned to Europe, where, in World War II they were sent to concentration camps. Asch and his wife remained in the US until Asch was harassed in the 1950s by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and left. Rudolph Schildkraut became an actor in silent films in Hollywood, his most famous role being Caiaphas in The King of Kings (1927) by Cecil B. DeMille.

While Indecent is specifically about the life of a particular play, Vogel’s play demonstrates how any great play is a nexus for world and personal events, a summation of all that has gone before it and, for the greatest plays, an influence on all that comes after it. It’s amazing how Vogel conveys such a complex idea so simply and clearly.

Indecent is filled with myriad ironies. Perhaps the greatest irony is that a play acclaimed all over the world, and even in Lower Manhattan, suddenly suffers virulent condemnation when it appears on Broadway. Vogel’s play is thus a scathing indictment of the American belief in free speech as well as of the low esteem in which Broadway producers hold their audiences. We learn how  Asch’s play could not even be staged on Broadway without cuts that eliminated the lesbianism. And even then it was still deemed obscene.

The related irony is that it was Rabbi Silverman who called the police to close the play down. His view was that Jewish people are already looked down on in New York, and that Asch’s play would only give non-Jews further evidence for their disdain. The opposing view, that Asch’s play only shows Jewish people’s strength in being able to confront sins committed by other Jews never occurs to Silverman who thinks, rather as Europeans did in the 18th century as the French Revolution loomed, that drama should always be uplifting.

Vogel’s play makes major demands on the seven-person cast. Except for the actor playing Lemml, the one direct link between the world of the play and the audience, all six other cast members must play from 6 to 8 different roles. To make this more difficult a title projected above the actors’ heads tells us whether they are speaking in English of Yiddish. If it is English, the actors speak with a Yiddish accent; if it is Yiddish, they speak without an accent. Given these complex requirement, the actors under Joel Greenberg’s direction give such flawless performances you don’t even think how difficult Vogel has made their work.

Most people will know Matt Baram as a major comedian. His role as Lemml proves that he is also a fine actor. Lemml is the genial stage manager of the troupe that performs Asch’s play but he also tells us that he is the stage manager of the play, namely Indecent, that we are about to see: “We have a story we want to tell you... About a play. A play that changed my life. Every night we tell this story ...”. The notion seems to be that the original players of Asch’s play have been preserved in time. They literally shake ashes from their sleeves before they speak. Lemml thus exists simultaneously in the present and the past and guides us through the story of Asch’s play just as the Stage Manager of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1938) guides us through the course of people’s lives in a small New England town.

Lemml, in contrast to more powerful people like Peretz, adores Asch and his play and upbraids Asch for allowing cuts to the play when its moves to Broadway. Baram plays Lemml as a genial figure filled with the innocence energy of idealism, who only seems to lose this innocence when he has to pin a gold star on his lapel back in Europe in the 1930s.

Jonathan Gould takes Asch on a wide emotional arc. He shows us the enthusiastic young writer, undaunted by criticism, turn into a reclusive, depressed middle-aged man, shocked by what he has seen when he witnesses the pogroms in Ukraine. In contrast, Gould also plays a sympathetic, worldly-wise Eugene O’Neill.

Jessica Greenberg and Tracy Michailidis play Chana and Halina in the troupe of actors who in turn play Rifkele and Manke in The God of Vengeance. In an art-reflects-life-reflects-art trope, Chana and Halina are in a lesbian relationship just like the characters they play. It is frequently noted that Asch makes the Rifkele-Manke relationship the one light of purity in the otherwise dark, sordid world of The God of Vengeance, and Greenberg and Michailidis bring an incandescence to these characters that makes them unlike any of the others, historical or fictional, in Vogel’s play.

On her own, Greenberg, in her best-ever performance, also plays the sensible Madje Asch and the superficial Virginia McFadden, who takes over the role of Rifkele from Chana in the US. Michailidis plays the contrasting role of Freida, a grande dame of German theatre. Contrasting with the lesbian couples of Chana and Halina and Rifkele and Manke, Greenberg and Michailidis also play the peppy Bagelman Sisters, American Yiddish entertainers from the 1940s, who sing an upbeat version of “Bei Mir Bistu Shein”.

Of the other actors, Dov Mickelson clearly distinguishes his six roles that include both the low-key police office Benjamin Bailey and the firebrand Rabbi Silverman. Sarah Orenstein’s five roles include the terrified Sarah in The God of Vengeance, mother of Rifkele, and the supportive older Madje. Nicholas Rice well plays his seven roles that include the wise I.L. Peretz, distinguished man of Yiddish letters, the aristocratic German actor Rudolph Schildkraut and the violent, near-insane character Yekel that Schildkraut portrays in Asch’s play.

In a play with such an epic sweep and in a play whose timeline overlaps with the life of Bertolt Brecht, it is fitting that Vogel should adopt numerous techniques from Brecht Epic Theatre in her play. She uses projected titles and synopses to label every scene, she builds into the play that we are always aware that the actors are playing roles and she requests a non-naturalistic staging. All the furniture of the play is made up of suitcases and boards.

Besides this, the action is accompanied by a live klezmer band made up of violinist Laetitia Francoz-Lévesque, accordionist Emilyn Stam and clarinetist John David Williams, whose music reflects the mood of the action. They are the band for the big group choruses that sometimes punctuate the actions such as the cabaret number when Asch’s troupe first travels to Berlin.

Ken MacKenzie has created a beautifully plain set of a wooden wall and a floor of wooden boards that under Kimberley Purtell’s lighting can look warm and safe or cold and threatening. Michelle Tracey has designed a range of costumes that follow the style of many decades of the action while also looking lived-in and reflecting the economic status of the wearer.

Director Joel Greenberg has masterfully directed the play as if the play’s many technical challenged were easily overcome. With seven actors playing 42 roles he makes certain we always know who is speaking and why. We hear so much about the fabled “rain scene” in Asch’s play, and when we finally do see it, it is even more moving than we could have imagined.

In short, Indecent is a modern play unusually bountiful in ideas and emotions. It is a must-see for all theatre-lovers and all those interested in the history of the first half of the 20th century and how it reflects the world we live in today.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: John David Williams (clarinet), Emilyn Stan (accordion), Laetitia Francoz-Lévesque (violin) Matt  Baram as Lemml, Jessica Greenberg as Madje, Jonathan Gould as Sholem Asch and Nicholas Rice as Rudolph Schildkraut; Sarah Orenstein as Sarah, Nicholas Rice as Yekel and Jessica Greenberg as Rifkele in The God of Vengeance; the ensemble of IndecentEmilyn Stan (accordion), John David Williams (clarinet), Laetitia Francoz-Lévesque (violin), Matt  Baram, Jessica Greenberg, Tracy MichailidisNicholas Rice and Dov Mickelson; Matt Baram as Lemml and Sarah Orenstein as Vera; Nicholas Rice (background) as Older Sholem Asch, Tracy Michailidis as Manke and  Jessica Greenberg as Rifkele. © 2022 Cylla von Tiedemann.

For tickets visit www.mirvish.com.