Apologies, dear reader – the end of the semester and its attendant demands on my time have made me dilatory in my blogging; nearly a week has passed since I saw the Pittsburgh Public Theatre’s very fine production of Paula Vogel’s play Indecent, and I am only now finding the bandwidth to write about it.
Indecent is a rich and complicated piece of theatrical writing that uses the history of another play, Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, to tell the story of Eastern European Jewish aspirations and persecutions in the early twentieth century. Its sweep is simultaneously intimate and vast, using a narrow focus on a Yiddish theater troupe to illuminate the historical pressures that buffetted Jewish and queer artists and immigrants in both Europe and the United States.
The multiple layers of storytelling make Indecent as difficult to describe as it is rewarding to experience. As the play opens, Lemml, aka Lou (Maury Ginsberg), the stage manager, introduces us to the troupe of actors and musicians who will play the many roles in both Vogel’s play and Asch’s play-within-the-play. There are the group’s founders, Vera (Laurie Klatscher) and Otto (Robert Zukerman), who play the elders; Halina (Meg Pryor) and Mendel (Ricardo Vila-Roger), actors “in their prime,” who play the cynical and scarred characters; and the ingenues, Chana (Emily Daly) and Avram (Robert Tendy), who play the idealists and lovers. Rounding out the troupe are three stellar Klezmer musicians – Nelly (Erikka Walsh) on violin, Mira (Janice Coppola) on clarinet, and Moriz (Spiff Wiegane) on accordion.
The story they have come to tell is the story of a play that most of us have never heard of: God of Vengeance was both one of the most successful Yiddish plays of the early twentieth century and also one of its most controversial. That play tells the story of a young girl who falls in love with one of the prostitutes working in her father’s brothel, and its emotional climax comes when the two women share a kiss in the rain. In Vogel’s telling of the story, the play raised hackles in 1906 in Asch’s small hometown of Lodz, Poland, but was embraced by the more sophisticated and broad-minded audiences of Berlin a couple of years later. A decade of successful touring on the Yiddish theater circuit of Eastern Europe followed; in the early twenties the troupe then brought the play to New York City, to play in a Yiddish house in the East Village. It was only when the play was translated into English and moved to Broadway in the early 1920s that its subject matter became contentious: the production was shut down on opening night and the producer and actors were arrested on charges of indecency.
For Vogel’s fictional troupe, the closing of the New York production eventually becomes a death sentence: the players return to Poland, where they perform the play in increasingly difficult circumstances in the years leading up to World War II. They are eventually imprisoned in the Lodz Jewish ghetto, where they put on the play in secret to audiences who might reward their performance with a scrap of food, and where they are rounded up by the Nazis and sent to the death camps.
Woven around and through this story are individual stories of migration, assimilation, artistic freedom, censorship, linguistic competency, and (in)tolerance. Asch moves to America but never learns to speak English; this has calamitous consequences when he agrees to allow changes to the English translation of his play which he cannot understand. Meanwhile, Lemml tries and fails to fully assimilate: he gets nicknamed “Lou” and tries to master English, but never manages to speak well enough not to be ridiculed. For Lemml, America is not a free country; it’s a country that censors art and humiliates people who don’t yet belong. In the troupe itself, two of the women are lovers, and they play the lovers in God of Vengeance, which makes the charge of obscenity doubly threatening. And the threats to artistic freedom don’t only come from without – the Jewish community itself is shown to be morally outraged by the play’s depiction of queer love, as Jewish leaders seek to position Jews as a model minority.
The Pittsburgh Public Theater production of the play is gorgeous. Narelle Sissons’s deceptively spare set comes alive under Michael Klaers’s breathtaking lighting design, and Devon Painter’s clothing grounds the action in the era while also providing some whimsy in the musical interludes. Sound and projections, by Zach Moore, anchor the play in time, space, and linguistic world. Director Risa Brainin shapes the complicated back and forth between different times and spaces – and between “real life” and the “play-within-the-play” – with clarity, and she uses silence to good emotional effect, as, for example, when she has the starving players take a long moment to savor the bread Lemml has managed to scrounge for them.
Brainin’s direction also underscores connections between the play’s concerns and our current moment, highlighting the challenges of coming to the US as a refugee as well as the continued threat of antisemitic violence. One scene that is particularly resonant comes when Asch, who has been to Europe and seen the violence of the pogroms, tells his wife that “it’s coming here.” Her response – “It won’t happen here; we’re safe here” – rings devastatingly hollow in light of the massacre here in our own city last October.
As the play ends, we see the scene that a New York judge deemed “indecent” – two women embrace in the rain. It’s a beautiful and tender moment, and one that drives home the bitter irony and ludicrous hypocrisy hinted at by the play’s title, which asks: what really constitutes the world’s indecencies?