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Review: Wilbury Offers Compelling INDECENT

A brilliant production of Vogel's powerful, timely work.

By: Dec. 17, 2023
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It is the ability of contemporary theatre to explore fully realized—even perhaps fatally flawed—characters which sets it apart from the melodramas of the nineteenth century, an approach which is not without risk. The breathtaking production of Paula Vogel's Indecent at the Wilbury tackles this challenge head on, and the result is one of the most powerful theatrical experiences of the season. Top line: Go see this show before it closes on Dec. 23.

Paula Vogel's Tony-nominated script is a recursive play about a play, in this case, the controversial 1906 Yiddish drama The God Of Vengeance by Sholem Asch. Asch's depiction of Jewish characters engaged in prostitution and a lesbian relationship raised hackles, even at the time. Vogel's work traces the journey of Asch's play across continents and decades, from its inception to its 1923 Broadway scandal (the first same-sex kiss, which earned the actors a night in jail) and beyond, against a backdrop of rising anti-Semitism that makes the darker side of its characters increasingly problematic.

In an exchange which could be ripped from today's headlines, the character of Sholem Asch asks, at the first reading, "Why must every Jew onstage be a paragon?" The host, Mr. Peretz replies, "You are pouring petrol on the flames of anti-Semitism. This is not the time." 

The argument Vogel makes is that such representations—and the implication that thoughtful consideration of such flaws shows us our deep, shared humanity—is even more critical at a time when similar issues have come once again to the fore. But it requires nuanced performances and sensitive direction, a challenge this production takes on admirably.

The heart of this show are the impassioned performances of the ensemble, who move fluidly among multiple roles, embodying a myriad of characters across different eras and geographies. With a minimal cast—a stage manager, three musicians, and six players (three couples: ingenues, middles, and elders)—each actor has the challenge of creating differentiated, memorable characters (and characters within the embedded play) while maintaining a cohesive narrative thread.

Patrick O'Konis as Sholem Asch (and other "young" parts) brilliantly captures the idealistic fervor of a writer whose work outruns his intentions. Anna Slate (Madje, the character Rifkele) is utterly captivating, and her scenes with Halina/Dorothee (Aimee Doherty), especially those as her lover on and off stage, are electric. Doherty's assured veneer makes the moment of her arrest even more impactful. Chris Stahl, as the troupe leader Lemml, is the production's emotional anchor, delivering a measured performance that is authentic and inspiring. His farewell scene is a heartbreaker. Dave Rabinow, Claudia Traub, and Scott Levine round out the excellent ensemble, and Dylan Bowden on accordion, Assel Sat on clarinet, and Florence Wallis on violin are utterly astounding at threading Lisa Gutkin & Aaron Halva's rich, authentic score through the show, whether they are taking center stage or providing a soundtrack.

Susie Schutt's direction is stellar. She has coached superb performances from every member of the company, provided a penetrating, meticulous vision that focuses the action, and uses every inch of Jeremy Chiang's brilliantly designed and constructed set to maximum effect (if you're sitting in the second row, house left, expect a charming Brechtian moment when the live audience becomes the 1920s audience and actors have to excuse their way to a seat. It's one of those delightful moments that only live theater can deliver.) Should you doubt Schutt's commitment to telling detail, note the 1930s environmental hallway that leads from the lobby into the theatre, and pay attention to the walls on the way out after the show.

We like to think of theatre as a brave medium. At its best, it can confront the most contentious issues of the time and help us find our way through moral thickets. But that is a path strewn with challenges: for the playwright, who must be painfully honest, for the actors and director, who must inhabit a world with courage and authenticity, and, frankly, for a theater company making the choice between mounting a thoughtful, challenging work and yet another crowd-pleasing seasonal spectacle that will fill seats.

Fortunately, Wilbury audiences do not have to choose. This production is both: a thought-provoking meta-theatrical meditation and a gripping, entertaining evening of theater, leavened with moments of (admittedly dark) humor, inventively staged and brilliantly acted. You should see this show because it is, simply, one of the finest Rhode Island Productions -- in this reviewer's opinion -- of recent memory. Highly recommended.

Indecent by Paula Vogel, directed by Susie Schutt at the Wilbury Thetre Group, 475 Valley Street, Providence, RI. Sunday Dec 17, 23 2pm, Thurs-Sun Dec 21-23 7pm. Tickets $35 (Budget friendly, $15; Access for all, $5) available at the link below or the box office, ​401.400.7100

Photo: Erin X. Smithers


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