Vengeance Is Mine: Paula Vogel’s “Indecent”

The cast of Indecent. Photos: Carol Rosegg.

Sometimes synchronicity approaches the astonishing. Only a few weeks ago Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed opened on Broadway, in which writer-director George C. Wolfe, enhanced by Savion Glover’s choreography, reports in song, dance and occasional sobriety how one Jazz Age musical phenomenon changed cultural history. Now, at Off-Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre, playwright Paula Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman, aided by David Dorfman’s choreography, have collaborated on Indecent, which could just as easily be subtitled “Or, The Making of the Yiddish Theater Sensation of 1923 and All That Followed.”

That’s right: Vogel and Taichman are responding to the same urge as Wolfe and Glover to take a keen view of a theatrical production by dragging a long stretch of history along with it. The reviews are in, of course, on Shuffle Along, which even in this season of all things Hamilton is still accruing awards and nominations. This review of Indecent — which originally premiered last October at Yale Repertory Theatre — will be about hot stuff as well.

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Giving decency a kick.

In the early 1900s, the Russian writer Sholem Asch, already recognized for his short stories, wrote a hair-raising play called God of Vengeance. It tells the steamy tale of Yekel, a Jewish brothel owner who was happy to derive income from the hookers working at the bottom levels of his house but also intent upon keeping his daughter, Rifkele, upstairs and untainted before marriage. The hitch: innocent Rifkele discovers she has a girlish yen for a young prostie, Manke. During a symbolically refreshing rainstorm, the two characters act on their urge — apparently the first-ever on-stage lesbian kiss.

At first, Asch unsuccessfully tried to mount a production of his play against the sentiments of theater mentors. Later, he succeeded, and God of Vengeance played to ovations across Europe. At the same time, for many people, the famous osculation between Rifkele and Manke was a shonda — a disgrace. The lesbian subplot disappeared when the play was mounted at the fabled Provincetown Playhouse but then God of Vengeance transferred to Broadway’s Apollo Theatre where, on March 6, 1923, after the performance of the second act, the cast and the producer were informed by a detective that they had been indicted earlier in the day on obscenity charges. At one point in Indecent, a character refers to the supposedly outrageous behavior of the actors, in their characters, as “a shonda for the goyim.” Worse, the prosecution was successful, although the sentences were relatively light.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]A throbbing, beautiful pageant.[/pullquote]Indecent is utterly and endlessly moving as it unfolds as if being recounted by an acting troupe in the disturbing 1940s. To dig into the story, Vogel and Taichman use a stage-manager narrator named Lemml (Richard Topol), six adaptably supple actors (Katrina Lenk, Mimi Lieber, Max Gordon Moore, Tom Nelis, Steven Rattazzi, Adina Verson) and three musicians (Mike Cohen, Lisa Gutman, Aaron Halva). Together, they follow the chronology of the play from 1906 — when Asch first penned his searing work — to the ain’t-we-got-fun 1920s to the Holocaust and beyond.

The result is a throbbing, beautiful pageant with quickly shifting scenes and the more-than-occasional musical interlude through which the entire ensemble moves adroitly into Dorfman’s joyfully solemn and solemnly joyful dance patterns.

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That’s if Emily Rebholtz’s costumes are any indication. And while it’s relayed, Tal Yarden projects the English and Yiddish dialogue and lyrics (“Bei Mir Bist Du Schon,” for instance) to let the audience know which language is being spoken. Stephen Gabis is the dialect coach — concentrating more, it seems, on the accents the actors use as Polish Jews speaking English.

With the actors and sometimes the musicians assuming several roles each (including violinist Gutman serving as the “fiddler on the stage”), each section is equally and unflinchingly potent.

Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk.

To illustrate what happened during the rewarding European tour of God of Vengeance, three actors repeat the final moments when Yekel humiliates Rifkele by preparing to throw a Torah at her feet — blackout. Taichman has them face stage left and right, upstage and down with a row of footlights before each reiteration.

Vogel and Taichman also replay the rainstorm scene more than once, including after it’s demanded to be cut from the original New York run. When Vogel presents a long line of Jews waiting to enter a gas chamber, she has the pair of amorous young women among them but has them escape, symbolizing the irrefutable survival of art.

For Vogel’s denouement, she has stage rain fall. To describe the action further would spoil the final moments, though even the most detailed account wouldn’t come close to capturing the effect on the audience by all but the hardest heart and barren soul.

Never during the intermissionless, 90-minute play is Bertolt Brecht’s name mentioned, but Taichman’s presentational, even confrontational style can be labeled Brechtian without fear of contradiction.

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The ensemble complies with Taichman’s conscious or unconscious Brechtian-like intentions. Topol’s Lemml is an untutored man awakened to a wider, harsher world. Lenk, also credited as dance captain, makes several women gracefully confident, and that includes downstairs lover Manke. Lieber is tough in the role of playwright Asch’s wife, Madje, in later life. Moore is insistent as the young Asch, among other roles.

Nelis, often dancing with style, plays Perutz, Asch’s angered mentor; Asch himself as advanced in age and angry; and the renowned Rudolph Schildkraut, who starred originally as Yekel. Rattazzi, fleetly switching costumes, has his finest moment as a Temple Emanu-El rabbi excoriating God of Vengeance. Verson is glowingly virginal as Rifkele.

It’s frequently proclaimed that history is written by the winners. Perhaps that’s true. But it’s also true that history may be rewritten by its victims. Shuffle Along is one example; Indecent is another. Both cases find history rewritten stunningly and defiantly.