Sage Martin & Julia Atkin in Indecent. Photo: Morgan Schussler-Williams
By Paula Vogel
Directed by David Y. Chack
A review by Tory Parker
Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Tory Parker. All rights reserved.
Paula Vogel’s Indecent presents a lyrical meditation and historiography on Scholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance. The play, a hit across the theatrical hubs of Europe in the early twentieth century, notably featured the first lesbian kiss on Broadway, where it ran for only six weeks before it was shut down and the actors were subsequently put on trial for “obscenity.” Not only that, it featured the desecration of a Torah scroll and a complicated depiction of a Jewish brothel owner and father, and faced harsh animosity from the American Jewish community who saw the play as gas on the fire of anti-Semitism.
Vogel’s play launches with a direct homage to another Pulitzer-winning playwright, Thornton Wilder, as Lemml (Robert Kingery) the Stage Manager welcomes us to the show and introduces us to our troupe of actors–paired by age, and subsequently by type: the Father and Mother, the Vamp and Schemer, and the Bride and the Groom. The play begins with the beginnings of the play, as 23 year-old Scholem Asch (Patrick Vaughn) shares his daring, first-ever play with his wife, Magde (Julia Atkin). We then follow the play from its first reading in a gentlemen’s study in Warsaw in 1906 to its European tour to its catastrophic Broadway debut to a freezing attic in the Lodz Ghetto in 1943 to America in 1952, when Asch forbids its production.
As told to us at the beginning, the actors portray many characters. While in theory this should show off their versatility and highlight the universality of the stories, the lines between the characters were so blurred–whether intentionally or not–that it became difficult to discern differences. While there were subtle costume changes, there was a clear lack of a directorial hand in their formation–we saw each actor giving a good performance, but largely the same performance, sometimes in a headscarf, sometimes in a hat, sometimes in an apron.
The show, by design, relies heavily on projected words, alerting the audience when a character is speaking Yiddish versus English or, importantly, the year and location of a scene, or the translation of a scene or song not in English. Without these projections, an audience member unfamiliar with the show would be entirely lost, and you lose Vogel’s beautifully crafted layered tableaus of visual and text. The projections at the Henry Clay utilize a rather uneven black brick wall, some of which is not visually accessible from many seats in the wide house.
Scenically, this production of Indecent is virtually identical to the original Broadway production in 2017. A recording of that production aired on PBS, and likely influenced the creative team at Bunbury. A plank floor of well-trod boards can be a brothel, an attic, a Broadway stage, or the port at Ellis Island. Along the back are period suitcases–stark and mobile, but never moving. The stage and the theater are not large, but at times members of the cast struggled to fill it. The stark nature of the space, which should have given them space to swell and soar, instead often drowned them. There is the sense that the show was rehearsed in a smaller space, that perhaps the size of the theater or the scale of the play is daunting to them.
They are bolstered, wonderfully, by musicians Jennifer Terrell, Bruce Krohmer, and Christian Casey. The orchestrations gives the audience a sense of time and place amongst the stark wooden floor and suitcases. From the graceful high fiddle of the shtetl to the wheezing accordion of 1920s Berlin, the music adds yet another potent layer to Vogel’s tableaus–the final dramatic scene of The God of Vengeance, the single file line out of the Lodz Ghetto to a far darker fate, the tenderness of “the rain scene.”
That is not to say this is not a wonderfully capable cast–everyone on stage is a veteran of the craft. However, there were not infrequent moments of uncertainty, even discomfort. However–Kingery, our dear Lemml, was both engine and conductor of this train, and his confidence, his presence, his crystal clear understanding of his character’s role in both this play and in the lives of these characters, acted as a much-needed grounding in this production.
If Kingery is the driving force, Julia Atkin and Sage Martin are the burning coals at the very heart of the beast. Martin glistens from within, sparkling and sexy; her characters are sure-footed, magnetic. The bold-faced earnestness of the script does not sound saccharine in her hands, but blunt and true. Atkin’s performance is subtler, even if sometimes it can feel timid or unfocused, but she shines in her scenes with Martin and Kingery. With them, her nuances can flourish, her subtlety can breathe.
Vogel’s play is a love letter–to The God of Vengeance, to Yiddish theatre, to the Jewish people, to the theatrical company, to Our Town, to queerness, to storytelling–and it comes with all the bleeding-heart earnestness a love felt that deeply and widely demands. There is little subtextual tension within the words, but it doesn’t want for it. If Asch’s work is the holy text which Vogel studied and dreamed, her play is a tender midrash, launching us through time, sowing seeds of what we know, historically, must happen. Lemml tells us that he does not know how it ends, and the stretching timeline of the play, now itself a part of the narrative, tells us that, perhaps, it does not.
The God of Vengeance’s most scandalizing moment, “the rain scene,” was cut when the show went to Broadway. In it, the two girls, Rifkele and Manke, clad in their white nightgowns, declare their love and their desire with such sincerity, that it feels too intimate to watch. Indecent’s final rendition of “the rain scene” is performed in Yiddish. The purity of that moment, the recitation of those lines in their original form, distills the feeling to a palpable concentration. It is perfectly, wonderfully clear why Manke, standing still, repeatedly tells us that she cannot breathe. There is no air in the room–there is only this love between these women, their characters, this troupe, this playwright and her play.
Indecent with Bunbury-ShPIel Identity Theatre is presented as part of TEATRON: Festival of Jewish Theatre, July 31 – August 21, 2022.
Featuring: Julia Atkin, Ke’Leb Beauchamp, Rena Cherry Brown, Jason Jones, Robert Kingery, Sage Martin, and Patrick Vaughn. Music from Jennifer Terrell, Bruce Krohmer, and Christian Casey.
July 28, 29, 30, August 5,6,7, 11, 12, & 13 @ 7:30 pm
July 31, August 7, & August 14 @ 2:00 pm
Bunbury-ShPIel Identity Theatre
The Henry Clay Theatre
604 S. 3rd Street,
Louisville, KY 40202
Tory Parker is originally from West Virginia, graduated from Centre College, and now works in marketing at the Waterfront Botanical Gardens. In Louisville, she’s worked and performed with Claddagh Theatre Company, the Chamber Theatre, Bellarmine University, Wayward Actors Company, Derby City Playwrights, Company Outcast and director Emily Grimany. As a playwright, her original works appeared in the National Women’s Theatre Festival in their 2020 and 2021 Fringe Festivals.