BWW Review: INDECENT at Artists Repertory Theatre and Profile Theatre
The United States has always had a strange relationship with the idea of decency. In 1923, on Broadway, Oedipus Rex ran without a problem, but the entire company of Sholem Asch's The God of Vengeance was arrested for obscenity. A man kills his father and marries his mother? Wholesome entertainment! Two women in love? No way!
Paula Vogel's INDECENT, which is currently running at Portland State as a co-production between Artists Repertory Theatre and Profile Theatre, tells the story behind The God of Vengeance, which had successful runs around the world before its Broadway opening and, during the Holocaust, was performed in the Łódź Ghetto in Poland.
But The God of Vengeance didn't just contain the lesbian love story that scandalized the prudish members of the Broadway audience. It also won enemies in the Jewish community because of its portrayal of Jewish people as people, not paragons, at a time when anti-Semitism was on the rise. "They're closing it because of Homo Sexualis? That's bunk," the playwright Asch says in INDECENT. "They're closing it because it shows every religion, even Jews, sell God for a price."
The story of The God of Vengeance encapsulates myriad complex and overlapping characteristics of that time in history: racism, homophobia, religious discrimination, moral bankruptcy, and more. That list may sound just as much like now as 100 years ago, which is exactly why Vogel wrote INDECENT: "We are on these parallel tracks, and it is dangerous now to be Jewish, trans, lesbian, gay or Muslim," she told The JC.
INDECENT opens in an attic in the Łódź Ghetto, with a theatre troupe rising up from the ashes. The stage manager, Lemml, introduces the actors and the musicians who have been gathering weekly to perform The God of Vengeance, despite there being a ban on theatrical performances. And then you're transported back to 1906, when Asch's play was read at a salon for the first time. Over the next 100ish minutes, you travel along with the play and its actors through the next several decades, eventually ending up back in the attic.
The protagonist of INDECENT is a play, so it's perhaps fitting that the star of ART and Profile's production is the stagecraft. At any moment, you could take a picture that would be both gorgeous and expressive. This is owing in no small part to Peter Ksander's set, which looks simple at first glance. But don't be fooled -- there's a lot going on. At times, I was so engrossed with imagery director Josh Hecht created that I failed to notice that the entire stage had transformed until all of a sudden the light hit it in a new way. There is also a lot of theatre magic, including real rain.
What the production was missing, at least the night I went, was chemistry. While there were some fine individual performances (especially Michael Mendelson's as Lemml), the cast didn't seem to gel as whole. Given what the play is about, there's a considerable amount of emotion already built into the material. But beyond that, it felt flat. In particular, the much-talked-about rain scene, which is supposed to capture the essence of pure love and be a beacon of light in the darkness...didn't.
Overall, I enjoyed INDECENT as a recent history play, a reflection on the importance of telling stories that are true and real, and a stunning work of visual art. INDECENT runs at PSU's Lincoln Hall through March 8. More details and tickets here.