BWW Review: INDECENT at Bluebarn Theatre: An Artistic Masterpiece
It's fascinating reading about the controversy surrounding Bluebarn's newest offering, INDECENT-not the 2017 play with music, but the original play entitled God of Vengeance penned in Warsaw, Poland in 1906 by 26 year old playwright, Sholem Asch. Theatre is said to unite people of all backgrounds, faith, and beliefs, but in this case, God of Vengeance did the opposite. The pro camp loved its raw beauty and realism; the con camp derided it as pouring oil on the fire of Anti-Semitism and urged that it be burned. Whatever the opinion, INDECENT, co-created by Pulitzer Prize recipient Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman, is a work of art.
Bluebarn's production of this art piece is one of the most beautiful I've ever seen. It is stunning in every respect!
Walking into the theater (which has absolutely no blind spots or partial views and it smells delightfully of fresh cut wood), I was entranced by the set which appeared to me to be somewhere between The Hobbit and Spring Awakening. Steven Williams's set design is simple, yet arresting. He combines rustic elements such as frayed remnants dangling from a faux painted proscenium accented with exposed boards, with industrial looking Eddison lightbulbs and projected surtitles on the back wall. "A Blink in Time" lights up the back wall with every split second pause in the action. He highlights the characters with spotlights and shifts colors to enhance the scenes, such as red lights reflecting off the actors in a brothel. It is deliciously beautiful.
The actors are quietly seated on stage in a tableau at opening. They are absolutely still. So when the characters come alive to the music, whirling as ashes fly out of their clothing, it is thrilling. The costumes, designed by Georgiann Regan add just that much more to the beauty of the production with muted tones and much detail. Swirling coats and pencil skirts with box pleats create pleasing motion and contrast with the vivid feathered headpiece in the cabaret.
Choreographer Melanie Walters has raised the bar for theatrical movement. Everything from the joy-filled twirling to the precise hand positions to the amusing skittering across the stage of an actor is absorbing. I couldn't look away. Combined with inspired staging and direction from the incomparable Susan Clement Toberer, there are no flat scenes, no empty spaces, no time to drift off into wondering what you will make for dinner tomorrow. There are Chorus Line lineups, including one scene featuring a sobering application of Star of David patches that is backlit by yellow bulbs. The lively Berlin cabaret scene with vaudevillian flair contrasts sharply with a repetitive throwing the Torah as the acting troupe travels European theaters.
Since this is a play with music, three musicians stroll about the stage interacting with the actors. Samual A. Bertino on clarinet, Kate Williams on accordion, and Olga Smola on violin deliver chills like 32nd notes running down your spine. Equally electrifying are the voices, singly or in harmony. Leanne Carlson, in particular, raises goosebumps as her voice soars through the theatre. Suzanne Withem lends her lovely voice and the two together create close harmony in the Andrews Sisters-like duet.
INDECENT is built upon the complicated concept of a play within a play. Told by a ghostlike cast, it revolves around a Jewish brothel owner who tries to reconcile his occupation with his religious beliefs by commissioning a Torah scroll and striving to keep his young daughter a virgin so she can marry a respectable man. When the daughter falls in love with a female prostitute, he throws the Torah and condemns his daughter to a life of prostitution. That's the original play, God of Vengeance.
INDECENT takes it to the next level. In it the writers relate the mostly factual account of how Asch's work was accepted by a few and regarded as vile and indecent by others. The play was performed across Europe and taken to the United States where it was edited to exclude the provocative rain scene between the prostitute and the daughter. Since Asch barely understood English, he was unaware these changes had been made. Nevertheless, six weeks after the play opened on Broadway in 1923, it was closed down and the cast and producer brought up on obscenity charges.
That's the "Cliffs Notes" version. This play, however, is much more intricate and requires your rapt attention. Fortunately, that is easy to do.
The play is narrated by the stage manager, Lemml (Jonathan Purcell) who is the only actor in the cast who performs one role. He is terrific throughout. The rest of the multi-talented cast (Ezra Colon, Suzanne Withem, Leanne Hill Carlson, D. Scott Glasser, Jonathan Wilhoft, and Judy Radcliff) take on the roles of lawyers, scholars, actors, immigrants, prostitutes, and just about anything and everything you can think of. They easily transform between characters, time periods, and ethnicities. This is an incredibly gifted group and I have nothing but praise for them and their skill.
I am not sure what Asch intended when he wrote God of Vengeance. He seemed a man of complex thought. I don't know on what side of the fence I would have landed back then. Would I applaud it? Or burn it? I do know; however, that INDECENT is much more than decent theatre. I'd see it again if only for the beauty of the production.
Performances run through April 14th with tickets available at http://bluebarn.org/tickets/ or by calling 402-345-1576.