Tuesday, July 9, 2019


Paula Vogel

The Cast of Indecent
As a violin hauntingly plays a song unknown but still quickly familiar in its sounds and rhythms as Eastern European Jewish, we see eight pairs of shoes at the stage’s edge – eerily reminiscent for any of us who have been to Budapest and have seen the moving memorial there to Holocaust victims with its abandoned shoes along the river’s edge.  A collection of luggage-bearing people enter the stage in somber coats and hats that blend into the bland background and the shadows, shaking their arms to the music as ashes scatter from their sleeves, just as we read a projection, “From the ashes, they rise.” 

One man emerges introducing himself as Lemml (“You can also call me Lou”) and explains that this gathered ensemble has a story to tell us, one about a play “that changed my life.”  But he also goes on to say with a premonition of where his own story will conclude in the camps of Nazi Europe, “Somehow I can’t remember the end, but I can always remember the beginning.”

William DeMerritt & Shayna Blass
And soon, we are transported to the Warsaw bedroom of a newly married couple where in 1905 Sholem Asch is reading to his wife, Madje, his newly written script for a play entitled God of Vengeance.  It is the twentieth-century history of this daring and thus controversial, Yiddish play that is the subject of Paula Vogel’s Indecent in which she also explores the rise of Nazism in Europe, assimilation of Jews in the U.S., the fears and realities of anti-Semitism facing recent immigrants in this country, and the role of same-sex relationships as an indicator of all forms of societal oppression of the times.  For most playwrights, the task would be too daunting to tackle such an array of heavy subjects.  However, as witnessed in the current Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s gripping, spell-bounding, and deeply affecting production of Indecent, the challenge is perfectly suited for Paula Vogel, one of America’s most beloved and celebrated contemporary writers.

The Cast
As the one-hour, forty-five minute (no intermission) play proceeds, we see various scenes reenacted from Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, starting in a Warsaw home where a group of Jewish intellectuals (along with one cousin who is a tailor) has gathered for a reading of the new play by a eager to point of hyper, twenty-something Sholem Asch.  We then watch scene after oft-repeated scene travel on Yiddish stages throughout Europe, finally landing in New York in 1921.  Seven actors plays a variety of parts along the way, with a compelling, moving accompaniment of music threading its way throughout the many scenes, played by the roving, onstage musicians Christina Crowder (accordion), Debra Kreisberg (clarinet and bass clarinet), and Kimberly Fitch (violin).

Shayna Blass & Rebecca S'Manga Frank
That initial, salon reading leads most of the guests, including the host himself, abruptly one-by-one to stand up and refuse to read another word of the shocking script.  Even for assimilated intellectuals such as they, a story about a Jewish proprietor of a brothel whose daughter falls in love with one of his ladies of the night is just too much.  However, when the father becomes explosively angry after his daughter Rifkele refuses to denounce the love she feels for the prostitute Manke, the last straw for the gathered is when he raises a sacred Torah that he has commissioned for this daughter, ready to throw it in his dejected disgust to the ground. 

Even as his host fervently denounces the play as one that will surely once again ignite anti-Semitism among European audiences, young Asch’s passion for his play cannot be extinguished but is only inflamed anew by the reactions he receives that first night.  Interestingly enough, the same can be said for that for the lone, non-intellectual in that initial reading, the tailor Lemml, who has already told us that this play “changed my life.”

Lemml joins Asch as his stage manager; and we watch that final, Torah-flinging scene play out again and again from 1907- 1918 on European, Yiddish stages from Berlin to Bratislava.  As real life begins to imitate the stage, the two actresses who play Rifkele and Manke, Ruth and Dorothee, themselves become lovers, with Shayna Blass and Rebecca S’Manga Frank providing two persuasive, powerful performances as do all of this excellent ensemble, even as each switches frequently from one persona to the next. 

When the troupe finally finds itself in New York, an initial run in the Bowery meets to similar, positive receptions that the Yiddish theatres of Europe have awarded the play.  However, hoping to become more commercial and reach broader audiences, Asch agrees to an English translation that his poor English does not allow him to watch over closely.  When some of the more obvious lesbian scenes are removed by a scrutinous producer and the storyline is changed to suggest Manke seduces Rifkele not into her bed but into the life of a prostitute, the devoted cast erupts into conflict, with some relationships totally ripping apart.  But enough of the lesbian attraction remains implied in the script that an opening on Broadway leads to dire consequences for both the production and the cast. 

The Cast
Paula Vogel not only pulls us so engrossingly into this play’s fascinating sometimes frightening history, she enlightens us also about an important part of theatre history itself.  She also does not hesitate to pull us into the greater, often graver events affecting the actors and the world around them at that time.  Director Shana Cooper uses a recurring image of people waiting anxiously in lines to recall events like immigrants’ uneasy moments waiting to be called before a agent full of questions at Ellis Island or of an even more disturbing line full of faces racked in fear as they enter a concentration camp where there is no exit. 

But the director also ensures we get to relish parts of this history with big smiles.  In one scene from 1920, we watch dancing Jews dressed in traditional black with prayer shawls and payot hanging respectively from their shoulders and below their ears assimilate in a kick line of shredded coats and curls in order to live in a country where  – as one comments to another – “every Jew looks like a goy.” 

Clarinetist Debra Kreisberg & Cast
These new arrivals have sailed on a boat, assembled together on a large ladder while swaying in the imagined waves – just one of the effective devices Sibyl Wickersheimer uses in creating a scenic design that usually appears to be in a makeshift space where theatrical props are few and probably borrowed.  The lighting of Marcus Doshi plays a major, starring role in creating effects of shadowy settings in a hidden attic, of crudely spot-lit performances on various stages, or of darkened skies in a world full of evil and upheaval.  Deborah M. Dryden’s costumes lead us on a tour from the early twentieth century to the 1970s, from stedls in Europe to the streets of New York, and from Jews dressed traditionally to those fully assimilated.  Projections by Rasean Davonte Johnson keep us oriented as to time, place, and language, with our hearing the words of actors who speak perfect English when their characters are acting/talking in Yiddish and our hearing heavy-accented and broken phrases when they are trying to converse in English.

But above all, it is the cast that brings Paula Vogel’s heart-wrenching story to full life, leaving us in the end inspired by the courageous, dedicated actors they so ably portray who keep the play they so believe it alive, even in a hidden room of the besieged Lodz Ghetto of 1943.  William DeMeritt’s Sholem Asch is excitedly intense in his youth, with the passion for his play exuding his every word and move.  After the play’s undeserved Broadway bomb, Asch visits Europe in the early ‘30s to investigate pogroms on the Eastern European Jewish communities, with the actor’s post-trip portrayal of a forever-altered Asch leaving a profound and shuddering effect on us as audience.  Shayna Blass plays the loving supportive wife and partner of Asch, Madji, as well as both women who portray Rikfele in Europe and the U.S. – the actual lesbian Ruth and an American actress (not lesbian in real life), Virginia McFadden, who steps in after Ruth is upset with the New York edits to the play. 

Rebecca S’Manga Frank is particularly commanding as the tall, explosive Dorothee who is the prostitute Manke in Asch’s play and the on-and-off-again, real-life lover of Ruth.  Anthony Heald and Linda Alper take on the more senior parts of Paula Vogel’s script, including the brothel-owning, non-forgiving father of Ruth and his wife/her mother.  They also respectively portray the playwright Asch and his wife, Madje, in their later lives when the aged Asch refuses to let anyone revive the play that brings back so many sad and bitter memories to a man who on this stage and in real life left behind forever writing stage scripts instead to become a novelist. 

That elder Asch is visited in 1972 by a hopeful producer who very much believes God of Vengeance needs to be revived for a modern audience, with John Rosen played in earnest eagerness by Aaron Galligan-Stierle.  Earlier in our evening, he has portrayed both a highly insulted reader at the original salon and a play-condemning Rabbi Silverman of New York’s venerable Temple Emanuel.  As the latter, he delivers a fiery sermon against the play and what he adamantly believes will be its forever, harmful effects on an already vulnerable Jewish community in 1923. 

Finally, the soft-spoken tailor Lemml is beautifully portrayed by Benjamin Pelteson, with the man whose name, life, and shyness is changed forever by the play he helped read that night in 1905 becoming a firebrand for the play’s continued life on some stage, even that of an attic under Nazi seize.
Watching Lemml/Lou’s transformation and seeing his ever-deepening belief in a play so foreign to who he once was as a tailor is forever memorable.  Here is a common man brought up in an Eastern Europe, Jewish community in the first third of the twentieth century ready to risk his life in the belief that a play must be seen by as many people as possible for as long as possible – a play that beautifully states in one final kiss in the rain by two women that love is love is love, no matter who loves whom. 

And it is that scene with the heavens above literally flooding the OSF stage that we as an audience leave the theatre forever ourselves affected by Paula Vogel’s Indecent in at least some small fraction of the same way God of Vengeance forever changed one tailor-turned-stage-manager’s life long ago.

Rating: 5 E

Indecent continues through October 27, 2019 in the Agnus Bowmer Theatre at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Tickets are available at www.osfashland.org.

Photos by Jenny Graham

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