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Indecent

The lines at Ellis Island and Auschwitz were long.
The lines at Ellis Island and Auschwitz were long.
Indecent ensemble
Photo: Adams VisCom
 
When a religious, ethnic, or other minority group is persecuted, it's crucial for its artists to stick their necks out with challenging material. When it does happen, sometimes the subtlety of the message allows it to pass under the radar of the authorities and the censors; for example, the works of Giraudoux, Anouilh, and Sartre when the Nazis controlled France; and sometimes, as in the case of Sholem Asch's God of Vengeance, the transgressions of societal norms in belief and behavior are front and center.

Zal Owen as Avram playing Sholem Asch
Zal Owen as Avram playing Sholem Asch
Photo: Adams VisCom
 
As a Jew during yet another run up of anti-Semitism in Europe, and its eventual most virulent incarnation in Nazi Germany, Asch explored themes (in 1906) that some considered off-limits. Yet, many productions across Europe were successful, despite a lesbian relationship being central to the story. However, the play's 1923 Broadway debut was deemed "indecent" by local authorities responding to a complaint by a rabbi, who felt that the play would bring more persecution and shame to the Jews.

In writing this play, Paula Vogel (How I Learned to Drive: Pulitzer Prize; and many more awards and honors for her work) takes key scenes from Asch's play, adds a poignant backstory involving the playwright and the acting troupe in the original Yiddish and adapted English versions, as well as some marvelous klezmer music composed and arranged by Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva. For Vogel, finding the right music for her plays, scene by scene, is the key to their development, as exemplified in the lyricism of this script.

"As a writer, I donít think that anything I can write has the power that music does. Iím happiest in the rehearsal room when beautiful voices start singing." —Paula Vogel, from a 2016 interview by Vineyard Theatreís literary associate, Miriam Weine

(Left to right) Erik Fellenstein as Meyer Balsam, Meg York as Nelly Friedman, and Ben Cohen as Moriz Godowsky
(L to R) Erik Fellenstein as Meyer Balsam,
Meg York as Nelly Friedman,
and Ben Cohen as Moriz Godowsky
Photo: Adams VisCom
 
Indeed, the live klezmer band (Meg York as Nelly Friedman on the clarinet, Erik Fellenstein as Mayer Balsam on the violin, and Ben Cohen as Moriz Godowsky on the accordion) capture the vibrant spirit of the Yiddish acting troupe whose travails form the dramatic through-line of Vogel's story (developed with Rebecca Taichman, co-creator and director).

Vogel ingeniously universalizes the troupe's experience into that of European Jews who were refused entry in the U.S. after fleeing the coming Holocaust, with the actors being forced to return to Poland after the State of New York ruled their work indecent.

Paul Kreppel as Otto playing Yekel, Andrea Goss as Chana playing Rivkele, and Valeries Spencer as Vera playing Sarah
Paul Kreppel as Otto playing Yekel,
Andrea Goss as Chana playing Rivkele, his daughter
and Valeries Spencer as Vera playing Sarah, his wife
Photo: Adams VisCom
 
In the original story, a couple in a Polish Jewish town run a brothel in their basement. The father, Yekel (Paul Kreppel), has arranged for the marriage of his daughter Rivkele (Andrea Goss) to a pius young man, and even commissioned the creation of a Torah scroll for the occasion, so that G-d would forgive him for his sins. Instead, his daughter has fallen in love with one of the prostitutes, Manke (Lianne Maarie Dobbs), bringing Yekel's dream crashing down.

(Left to right) Andrea Goss as Chana and Lianne Marie Dobbs as Halina
(L to R) Andrea Goss as Chana
and Lianne Marie Dobbs as Halina
Photo: Adams VisCom
 
In Vogel's story, the actors Chana (Goss) and Halina (Dobbs), who perform as Rivkele and Manke in Asch's play, are in love as well, amplifying the intensity of the love relationship and the impact of persecution on those producing and performing Asch's play. All of this is further intensified by Goss and Dobbs' chemistry and the stakes in real life, when the troupe performs for the last time in the Lodz ghetto, as the Nazis close in.

(Left to right) Lianne Marie Dobbs as Halina playing \Manke and Andrea Goss as Chana playing Rivkele
(L to R) Lianne Marie Dobbs as Halina playing Manke
and Andrea Goss as Chana playing Rivkele
Photo: Adams VisCom
 
Vogel also raises compelling questions regarding the sanctity of the writer's story, with Eugene O'Neill praising Asch's gutsy script (which is critical of anti-Semitism, as well as reglious dogma, including Judaism), and with the stage manager, Lemml (John Plumpis), questioning Asch's agreement to cuts in the Broadway version. In the end, it is Lemml who drives Vogel's vision of artistic integrity, while Asch is seemingly crushed by the persecution of his ideas and his identity.

Nancy Keystone's direction and impressive work from the entire creative team—including: the multimedia design (Gregory W. Towle) that conveys the setting, as well as Vogel's brilliantly conceived means of mixing Yiddish, German, and English; and, the voice and dialect work (Mary McDonald-Lewis)—deliver a totally immersive, non-stop, two-hour tour de force and transcendent catharsis.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's presentation of Indecent runs through October 6th. For tickets: denvercenter.org/tickets-events/indecent/.

Bob Bows



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