BWW Review: INDECENT: A Work of Art, A Story of Love
Written by Paula Vogel, Directed by Rebecca Taichman, Choreography by David Dorfman; Scenic Design, Riccardo Hernández; Costume Design, Emily Rebholz; Lighting Design, Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design, Matt Hubbs; Projection Design, Tal Yarden; Hair & Wig Design, J. Jared Janas & Dave Bova; Score and Original Music by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva; Music Supervision, Lisa Gutkin; Fight Direction, Rick Sordelet; Dialect Coach, Liz Hayes; Yiddish Dialect Consultant, Moishe Rosenfeld; Production Stage Manager, Emily F. McMullen; Stage Manager, Kevin Schlagle
Indecent is a beautiful work of art that exists in a realm above and beyond the conventional category of a play, or, in this case, a play with music. It has an ethereal quality that suggests an oil painting in motion, with every movement and every utterance in service to telling a story that cannot be communicated by words alone. It is a strain to think of another drama that comes as close to demonstrating the power of theater to be both moving and thought-provoking, sweeping the audience into a shared moment, a blink in time (in the language of the play), as it expresses the visceral experience of a community that, on the brink of elimination, chooses to defy the very real dangers threatening them and stand up for love and truth.
The Huntington Theatre Company presents the Boston premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel's play, under the direction of Tony Award-winner Rebecca Taichman, featuring many members of the original Broadway cast. Indecent introduces the artists who performed the early 20th-century Yiddish play, God of Vengeance, by Polish-Jewish playwright Sholem Asch, which caused controversy for its depiction of a lesbian romance and featured the first-ever stage kiss between two women when it was performed (1923) on Broadway. The show was shut down by the New York vice squad, and the cast, producer, and theater owner were arrested and put on trial for obscenity.
Vogel's vision to capture and commemorate the source play, which gobsmacked her when she first read it as a 22-year-old graduate student at Cornell University, involves a non-linear rendering of its creative history, Asch's process of writing and pushing to stage the work, and its numerous productions in Europe and America. In keeping with the ensemble nature of the piece, with the exception of Lemml, the Stage Manager (Richard Topol), the members of the theater troupe are all listed as Actor in the program, and each plays multiple characters. Reprising their Broadway roles are Mimi Lieber, Steven Rattazzi, Adina Verson, and the three Musicians, Matt Darriau, Patrick Farrell, and Lisa Gutkin (co-composer/Music Supervisor). New to the cast are Elizabeth A. Davis, Joby Earle, and Harry Groener.
Indecent's complicated story challenges the audience to follow its course, wending its way back and forth in time, traversing national boundaries, and alternating between Yiddish and English dialogue. Supertitles ground us in time and provide translations, but Lemml's role is to serve as narrator and guide, and Topol is superb as the face of The Acting Company. Evocative Yiddish and Klezmer music play a huge part in drawing us in, often conveying the deepest emotions of a scene. The musicians are onstage and organically blend with the actors, participating in David Dorfman's choreography even as they provide the music for it. Every member of the troupe adds their voice to the singing and joins in the dancing, some of it a somber reflection of their troubles, and some of it joyous celebration of their success. The most moving piece of choreography is performed by Verson (Rifkele) and Davis (Manke), so convincing as the teenage girl and the prostitute who fall in love.
Earle (Asch) is earnest and starry-eyed as the young playwright, and angry and explosive when he sees the destruction and devastation in Poland. Groener plays Asch late in life when he appears beaten and refuses to let his play be produced, and he also gives a full-throated performance as Rifkele's hypocritical father, the rabbi who runs a brothel in his basement. Lieber plays the rabbi's wife, trying to protect her daughter from her father's wrath. Rattazzi delivers a wrathful rant as the New York rabbi who wanted God of Vengeance to be shut down.
Taichman also has her design team from the Broadway production intact, including Riccardo Hernández (scenic), Emily Rebholz (costume), Tony Award-winner Christopher Akerlind (lighting), Matt Hubbs (sound), Tal Yarden (projection), and J. Jared Janas (hair & wig). The actors move set pieces and decorations on and off the stage in rapid or stylized movements, blending one scene into the next. Lighting changes and projections often advance or announce the action, but everything flows smoothly along with musical underscoring.
Indecent is the product of a long development process, with dozens of drafts written over seven years, workshops and productions at Yale Rep, La Jolla Playhouse, and Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre. It opened at the Cort Theatre on Broadway on April 18, 2017, and closed on August 6, 2017. In the two years since, circumstances in our country and in many locations abroad have heightened the relevance of the themes in the play. It deals with anti-semitism, censorship, homophobia, and hostility to immigrants, all of which provide stunning moments on the stage. Yet, despite the disheartening realization that history appears to be repeating itself, the glimmer of hope that sparkles in this backstage drama is the example of what a small troupe of passionate artists did for love.