By Colin Douglas
After seven years, 40 drafts, a number of workshops and an off-Broadway run, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paul Vogel’s historically-based drama, Indecent, eventually premiered, on Broadway, in 2017.
It was nominated for the Tony Award that year as Best Play, although it lost out to Oslo. Vogel’s play, which spans half a century, leaps throughout the years like a blink of time. It tells the true story of a Yiddish playwright named Sholem Asch who, in 1906, crafted a play, a shtetl tragedy, that would show the world that Jewish people were just like everyone else.
Asch entitled his play God of Vengeance. Unlike the lighthearted Yiddish comedies and music hall entertainments of the time, the playwright composed a story about a Jewish brothel owner who’s worked hard, saved his earnings and bought a majestic Torah, with which to celebrate his daughter’s approaching wedding. However, in a very moving climactic scene, the father learns that his virginal daughter has fallen in love with one of the prostitutes. He then throws his daughter, her lover and the Torah downstairs into the brothel, as the curtain falls.
The play proved controversial but very popular in performances all over Europe. Following its first private salon reading, however, Asch’s mentor, I.L. Peretz, had advised the young playwright to burn his script. But Asch was encouraged by his wife and a young, first-time stage manager to find a way to open the play. Cast and first produced in the more permissive city of Berlin, God of Vengeance eventually found its way to New York’s Lower East Side, where it was translated and performed in English.
But when an American producer decided to produce the play at the Apollo Theater, it raised much concern. In 1923, it became the first play on Broadway to feature a lesbian love scene and a kiss. The entire cast was arrested for their indecent, immoral and impure theatrical performance. Asch rewrote his script, basically omitting a scene in which the two women meet during a rainstorm and made love on stage. He’d originally defended the scene as being like Romeo and Juliet. But, in the end, in order to appease the more conservative American audiences and critics, Asch caved and removed the scene.
This beautiful, sensitively directed production by Gary Griffin is a story of courage. While honoring this play and the history of the Yiddish stage, Vogel’s play probes the destructive effects of censorship and celebrates the power of theatre, both for its audiences and for those who participate in this art form. His production particularly comes alive through the authentic music added by talented musical director and performer Matt Deitchman and his rousing klezmer band. It primarily features Deitchman on accordion and Elleon Dobias on violin, with additional accompaniment by actors Noah LePook on bouzouki and Benjamin Magnuson on string bass.
Actress Cindy Gold guides her castmates through expert dialect coaching and Katie Spelman choreographs some lovely, intricate folk dances for the company. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s simple scenic design, with its sparse furnishings, serves as a blank canvas, on which every scene can fluidly be played. The settings are detailed by Stephan Mazurek’s captioned projections and illuminated by Keith Parham’s lighting design. Mara Blumenfeld makes her Victory Gardens debut, designing an array of authentic, period costumes that help the actors create time and place.
Griffin’s wonderful ensemble cast create over forty different characters. Benjamin Magnuson primarily plays young, earnest stage manager, Lemml, who asks to be called Lou. His unabashed passion for Asch’s play, his first foray into the world of theatre, is the impetus for the rest of the cast. LaPook makes his Chicago debut playing the actor, Avram, who creates all of the male ingenues, including a young Sholem Asch. Kiah Stern plays Chana, the ingenue actress of the company who nicely plays, among other characters, Asch’s wife and the brothel owner’s lovely daughter, Rifkele. Catherine LeFrere is stellar as both the actress and the character she plays, the prostitute called Menke. The always-magnificent David Darlow and Gold play the brothel owner and his wife, among several others. And Andrew White portrays multiple, middle characters. as the actor Mendel.
This is an historically important play, flavored with authentic music, that still resonates today. In a nation that’s being continually challenged by a government seeking to eliminate women’s rights and the freedoms won by the LGBT community, while making those from other cultures and religions appear to be our enemies, this play feels particularly contemporary. It could’ve been written about the America of today, rather than the early 20th century. As its characters, words and music reverberate with adult audiences, theatergoers will leave the Victory Gardens Theatre having experienced a gorgeous, powerful work that celebrates its theatricality.
Victory Gardens Theatre presents “Indecent” through November 4 at the Biograph, 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.