Review: INDECENT at Austin Playhouse reminds us of the transformative power of theater

The production runs from April 21st through May 14th, 2023

By: May. 10, 2023
Review: INDECENT at Austin Playhouse reminds us of the transformative power of theater
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Directed for Austin Playhouse by Lara Toner Haddock, Indecent tells the story of the controversial Broadway debut of Jewish playwright Sholem Asch's The God of Vengeance. The play had a successful run in Yiddish throughout Europe and the lower Manhattan in the early 1900s, but when it was translated to English and staged for Broadway in 1923, it was censored and faced legal action that ended in the infamous obscenity trial.

Indecent, was born from a collaboration between Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman, whose MFA Production thesis for Yale University interwove the text of The God of Vengeance with the transcript of the 1923 trial. In an Interview for Vineyard Theater, Paula Vogel explains her admiration for The God of Vengeance, which captured her attention when she was 23. "In 1907, playwright Sholem Asch was brave enough to write that Jews are no different than Catholics or Buddhists or people of any religion" and at a time of burgeoning anti-Semitism, his courageous play showed audiences that deep inside we are all simply human beings. In the same interview, she added that at a very young age and being married at the time, Asch understood "the powerlessness of women in that time and place" and that this understanding allowed him to write a compelling, beautiful love story between two women. Indecent explores the effects of intolerance in our society, which is often rooted in anti-Semitism, homophobia, and hypocrisy. While The God of Vengeance was a story about a Jewish family that run a brothel in Poland in the 1900s, that was not what started the controversy. In the 1923 obscenity trial of the play, Rabbi Joseph Silverman testified for the prosecution and later said in a newspaper interview that the "play libels the Jewish people. Even the greatest anti-Semite could never have written such a thing." Such a thing was the lesbian kiss and love story because the Rabbi was not offended by the theme of prostitution in the play - which was abundant on Broadway at the time - but rather by the relationship between the two female protagonists.

Review: INDECENT at Austin Playhouse reminds us of the transformative power of theater
Cast of Indecent
Steve Rodgers Photography - Austin Playhouse

Theater is meant to enlighten us, to open our hearts and minds to the beauty of humanity, and to awaken outrage at the injustices and inequalities of this world. Theater is meant to provoke us and to stir up inner thoughts and feelings that society conditions us to subdue. In 1923, intolerance and hypocrisy robbed audiences of the opportunity to be enlightened and transformed. 100 years after the obscenity trial against The God of Vengeance, many communities and cities in America continue to robe their citizens of such opportunities. They ban books, they cancel school plays, they prevent the viewing of classical works of art, and they censor artistic expression of ideas that oppose their own religious or political views (read "Florida High School Cancels 'Indecent,' a Play About Censorship on Broadway in 1923" - here). Have we not learned anything in 100 years? I guess not all of us have.

A play within a play, Indecent combines traditional Yiddish, culturally appropriate music (under the musical direction of Lyn Koenning) and historically accurate movement (choreographed by the multi-talented Adam K. Roberts). In Indecent, music and movement not only highlight the beauty of the Jewish culture but also aid in the transition between time periods and locations. Furthermore, they enhance the narrative and emotions at play at every turn.

Review: INDECENT at Austin Playhouse reminds us of the transformative power of theater
AJ Clauss as Sholem Asch
Steve Rodgers Photography - Austin Playhouse

A small but versatile group of actors, guide audiences on a journey that starts in 1906 Poland, where the first reading of the The God of Vengeance takes place. A young Asch - played with gentleness and charisma by AJ Clauss - fights to get his play on stage because he believes that it tells a story of "real Jewish people". He finds resistance in the older men of the group, who try to hold on to their traditions and conservative beliefs. An early supporter of Asch's play is Lemml (Ben Wolfe) who is an accidental guest at the reading. Turned strong supporter and the company's stage manager, Lemml represents a beacon for the transformative power of the theater. He lives to tell the story again and again and in the expert hands of Mr. Wolfe, Lemml becomes a friend, a family member, someone we want to see succeed in the battle against bigotry and homophobia. We are so vested in Mr. Wolfe's engaging performance that we cannot but share on the devastation Lemml must have felt at the end. In this play within a play, the narrator leads audiences from country to country and from stage to stage, all the way to Broadway in 1923. His narrative interweaves parts of the play The God of Vengeance with the real-life stories of the members of the theater company that performed the controversial play.

Review: INDECENT at Austin Playhouse reminds us of the transformative power of theater
Ben Wolfe as Lemml
Steve Rodgers Photography - Austin Playhouse

Kathleen Fletcher and Sarah Fleming Walker as the lesbian lovers (on and off stage) shine in every scene and in every role. There is a real and palpable chemistry between them that makes us root for a happy ending, although we know it may never come. Mr. Clauss gives Asch an aura of optimism that makes you believe that he may be able to change the minds of those that so vehemently oppose him. On the other hand, when he is lost in the pain and suffering around him, in the changing of a world at the cusp of the great war, we feel a little lost as well.

Rounding up the cast are Michael Ferstenfeld (The Middle), who has the most lovable and hateful lines in the play - as the skeptic member of the original reading group in 1906 and the intolerant Rabbi in New York in 1923. The Elders are played by the incredible Huck Huckaby and Babs George, whose performances give credence to the feeling that any theater company is a family on and off the stage - something that I believed to be true for both companies, the one that performed The God of Vengeance in the 1900s and the company that performed Indecent in Austin on Sunday.

The entire cast of Indecent at the Austin Playhouse is outstanding. Every single actor on stage demonstrates skill, passion, and versatility. They deliver many lines in Yiddish, use accents to illustrate the different languages spoken (aided by dialect coach Amanda Cooley Davis). They sing, dance, and dub as live orchestra on stage. These amazing actors do it all and they do it with mastery and perfection. The production of Indecent at the Austin Playhouse highlights the depth of talent in the Austin theater community and reminds us of how lucky we are to live in a city that supports freedom of artistic expression.

A simple but purposeful stage design by Mike Toner, allows us to focus on the magnitude of the story. There is a hue of earth tones in the entire set and costume that adds nostalgia to the play. Costumes (Diana Huckaby) and makeup are designed to transport us to the right time and place and the attention to detail at every turn is impeccable.

When the show ended, I stayed in my seat for ten minutes, frozen in that moment, letting it all sink in. I was afraid that if I stood up, if I let the weight of my emotions carry me to the door, I would lose some of those feelings and I was too selfish to let them go. I am a firm believer in the transformative power of the theater, and I take responsibility to make sure that this power is not silenced by the intolerance and ignorance of those that cannot accept others for who they are. With all that anguish released by this outstanding play, I sat to write the review. I had to stop many times to do research on the events of 1923, the trial, and the play. I came to the realization that a lot has changed, and nothing has changed. As a society, we need to do better. As individuals that believe in the power of theater, we need to do whatever we can to keep the theater alive, to keep stories uncensored, to fight ignorance and intolerance. Go to the theater! Support your community actors and theater houses! Let yourself be enlightened!

by Paula Vogel

April 21 - May 14, 2023

Thursday-Saturday at 8 pm
Sunday, April 23, 30, and May 7 at 5 pm
Sunday, May 14 at 2 pm

directed by
Lara Toner Haddock

musical direction by
Lyn Koenning

Austin Playhouse West Campus
405 W. 22nd St.
Austin, TX 78705