Saturday, June 16, 2018

Variegated, inspiring and intense, 'Indecent' opens the final part of Phoenix Theatre's season

After the splash of "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater" linked Phoenix Theatre history from the old era to a new one last month and had Vonnegutites genuflecting toward North Illinois Street, the first post-transition production to come to the new facility's main stage focuses on the interaction between theater and the world itself. It has unique historical material to apply to the Shakespearean touchstone, made banal by repetition, of "All the world's a stage," flipping it to something like "all stages are the world" and the reversed corollary, "and all the players merely men and women."

Two women kissing got Sholem Asch's play off the New York stage.
"Indecent" is a Tony Award-winning play by Paula Vogel, a stylistically free-flowing ensemble drama with the feel of a historical documentary. It traces the fortunes of "God of Vengeance," a 1906 Yiddish play written in Warsaw during the time of pogroms and with European Jews subject to modernist forces of disintegration as well as centripetal pressure to resist both embedded and overt anti-Semitism.

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.
With that court case as the fulcrum, "Indecent" then shows the aftermath: The elusive American dream had so clouded the vision of liberation among Jewish immigrants that some returned to the Old World, eventually to face more conclusive restraints on their freedom. Asch's disillusionment was total, though he survived McCarthyism by trimming his sails somewhat; his services to Yiddish literature remained strong, despite his firm suppression of any "God of Vengeance" revival.

The word "decent" has roots in an ancient Greek verb meaning "to seem good." "Indecent," a favorite label of censors and prosecutors, describes whatever does not seem good to those doing the labeling. Long ago it was a kind of litmus test of impropriety. Society can dismiss the likelihood that you are good if you don't seem good. Hamlet famously "knows not seems," as he tells his mother, and look where it gets him. "Indecent" as a title has multiple resonance in Vogel's play. For most of us, in and out of theater, knowing what seems good to others about us is crucial to social success and a reputation for decency.

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.
remains loyal as the scene shifts to New York. But resistance at the initial readings in a Warsaw literary salon is a harbinger of what will happen on the wider stage. The young author witheringly offers this secularized definition of a

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.
feeling of never being at home, whether performances are well-received or not. The chrysalis of "God of Vengeance," from which it hopes to burst forth butterflylike to a welcoming world, is the Rain Scene, celebrating the love between two women in terms that echo the Song of Songs. Its triumph, writ large in the performances of Lee and Spivak,  is hedged round by the circumstances in which challenging theater takes place.

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]