BWW Review: INDECENT at the Guthrie

BWW Review: INDECENT at the Guthrie

INDECENT is a play about a play: Sholom Asch's GOD OF VENGEANCE, first performed in 1907 in Berlin, then widely across Europe, and eventually in 1923 in New York. There it was censored and the acting troupe was arrested and jailed. It's also about how writers work, about forbidden love, about family, about being an immigrant to the US who speaks with an accent, about Yiddish theater and changing tastes on Broadway, about McCarthyism, and, yes, about the Holocaust.

Paula Vogel spent seven years developing INDECENT with Rebecca Taichman as director and co-creator before it opened on Broadway in 2017, with significant stops at Yale Rep and La Jolla on this journey. She chose the Guthrie for the first production of INDECENT after its Broadway run, which is quite a gift to the flagship Minneapolis theater.

Wendy C. Goldberg's new production is marked by exquisite attention to detail and great heart. The Guthrie's large asymmetrical thrust space calls for a freer staging than the smaller proscenium Broadway houses permit. This seems to open up the play's emotional core, while containing that feeling within the script's rigorous compression. That's a powerful combination.

INDECENT travels across almost 50 years in just 1 hour 40 minutes stage time (no intermission). It's a golden example of how skillful theater can tell complex historical stories without oversimplification or pedantry.

GOD OF VENGEANCE is about a Jewish father who makes his living off a brothel in the basement of his home, while trying to raise (with his wife) a virtuous daughter on the floors above, who will be eligible for marriage to a man of high status; he assuages his conscience by also commissioning a lavish Torah. His plans go awry when his daughter becomes friends with his chief prostitute; the two find refuge in each other and form a loving sexual bond.

INDECENT traces the impact this play had on Asch, his wife, the troupe that toured it so widely, Yiddish theater, and subsequent generations--including Vogel herself, who first read the play as a grad student. She was, by her own account, rendered breathless by reading it, much as her character Lemml, the eventual stage manager of the acting troupe in INDECENT, is overtaken at the first reading of the play, while the reigning literati are appalled by the overt lesbian content.

Ben Cherry plays Lemml, and is one of two actors in the Guthrie's company to have performed the piece on Broadway. Music director and co-composer Lisa Gutkin is the other. On violin, and often dancing, she leads Spencer Chandler (accordion) and Pat O'Keefe (clarinets) through the intricate score, adding touches of joy and underlining pathos as needed.

The other six actors cover some 40 roles over the course of the play. They are introduced to us as three pairs: one older couple who play the fathers and mothers; one couple in their prime; and one young. It's a testament to Vogel's text, actorly skill, and Goldberg's directorial excellence that we are never confused about who is who, despite all the switching up that goes on, mostly unaided by big costume changes.

All six of these actors marry craft with soulful transparency. Robert Dorfman and Sally Wingert, both Guthrie stalwarts, provide appropriate weight and steeliness as the older couple. Hugh Kennedy plays Asch for much of the play. He begins as a young newlywed who has written a love scene for two women based in part on his own love match of a marriage. As time passes, he transforms into a marginalized immigrant and traumatized witness of the horrors of the 20th century. Steven Epps, famous locally for inspired clowning skills, reins himself in appropriately, cutting multiple sharply defined characters through movement and stance. Miriam Schwartz and Gisela Chípe play multiple roles while offering great grace and tenderness as the two lovers.

This production evinces tremendous command of a great range of narrative tools. These include what is in effect a filmic montage with changing angles of view of the final moments of GOD OF VENGEANCE as it is performed across Europe before coming to the US. Projections (Alex Basco Koch, designer) are part of Vogel's text and locate us in time and place, and help us navigate the switches from Yiddish to English. Song and dance (Yehuda Human, choreographer) lift the action. The lighting throughout (Josh Epstein, designer) is simply gorgeous.

Arnulfo Maldonado's set suggests an abandoned theater: dusty seats much like those in the audience are occupied by actors who watch us enter before the show begins. They are surrounded by debris of various kinds, including large chandelier elements on the ground that made me think of a demolished synagogue--perhaps because early scenes involve hefting a large Torah repeatedly, and because I have always felt the stage can be sacred space.

When asked at a talkback following an early performance what three messages cast members would like the audience to take away with them, the answers were: Love is love. Evil can happen at any time. Art can transform the world, and specifically, a play can change your life. Yes, yes, and yes.

This important production runs at the Guthrie through March 24.

Photo credit: Dan Norman

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From This Author Karen Bovard

Karen Bovard has been reviewing theater online, in weekly arts papers, and in scholarly journals for 20 years in New England. In 2016, she relocated (read more...)

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