|Two women kissing got Sholem Asch's play off the New York stage.|
Vogel examines the losing battle of Sholem Asch's play, which included the first onstage kiss between two women, to survive translation into English and stay clear of legal trouble. In 1923, the cast and producer were arrested for obscenity, tried and convicted. Changes to the text behind the author's back had not removed it from controversy, part of which was fueled by the New York Jewish establishment's objections to its linking of Judaism to a brothel setting.
|Harbinger of trouble: A literary-salon reader finds the play indecent.|
Asch at first argues to have his play seem good to his fellow Polish Jews. One early advocate, Lemml, minyan (the number of men Jewish law requires for a communal religious service): "Ten men standing in a circle calling each other anti-Semitic."
|New World frolic: A girl-group gig in the Catskills.|
Like most of us, Asch believes he is good; both his intentions and his art support this. But "God of Vengeance" becomes a burden posing continual threats to his conviction that traditional religion and narrow moral codes erect obstacles to human potential.
The way Vogel structures the play is carried out in the Phoenix production with an arresting yet flowing gracefulness under Martha Jacobs' direction. The cast is an adaptable, shape-shifting troupe divided into three generations — an Elder Man and Woman (Mark Goetzinger and Jolene Moffatt), a Middle Man and Woman (Bill Simmons and Abby Lee), and a Male and Female ingenue (John Goodson and Courtney Spivak). There is charm, ferocity, humor, and pathos in their portrayals.
|Lemml (left) and Sholem Asch formed an unshakable bond over "God of Vengeance."|
Only the passionate and doomed Lemml (Nick Jenkins) remains the same to hold the narrative thread firm. Yet his idealistic resolve is insufficient to remove from his life the question that afflicts Jewish history, particularly in the first part of the 20th century: What must members of an oppressed minority do to seem good to one another as well as to the strangers among whom they must live and hope to flourish? And what sacrifice of integrity may be involved if they succeed?
With music and arrangements by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva, performed to accompaniment tracks, the cast smoothly negotiates the abrupt shifts of mood and character. Their movement is enhanced from time to time by Esther Widlanski's choreography. Changes of setting are signaled by projections. The most common phrase in the projections is "a blink in time," emphasizing the transience of on- and offstage life alike. The screened words also guide the audience as to which language the characters are using: Yiddish, German, or English.
Old-fashioned suitcases are lugged into position as props and furniture, reinforcing the troupe's
|Isolated and threatened, the "God of Vengeance" troupe huddles.|
The world, it turns out, is rarely welcoming. The stages on which adventurous art is mounted are fragmented and absorbed by intrusive agendas. Along the way, however, philistinism ironically refines and ennobles the artistry, as this production demonstrates. Still, all the stages are the world, which mocks what happens in plays by stubbornly not having an ending. "Indecent" is a label that's hard to erase and all too easy to apply to one blink in time after another. "Indecent" the play affirms that resistance and perseverance are worthwhile.
[Photos by Zach Rosing]