Menier Chocolate Factory
Indecent gives us a streamlined history of a play: the once notorious God of Vengeance, written in Yiddish in 1906 by Sholem Asch. At the same time, it is an overview of decades of anti-semitism, homophobia and other intolerance and a great celebration of theatre.
Asch’s play (his first) tells the story of a brothel owner and his daughter. He seeks respectability by commissioning a Torah scroll and finding a yeshiva student to marry her but she becomes involved in a passionate lesbian relationship with one of the prostitutes.
The Stage Manager Lemml (Finbar Lynch) introduces his troupe of Yiddish performers before beginning the story which takes us from the first reading of the play by an all-male group in Warsaw that includes leading Yiddish author I L Peretz who tells Asch to “burn it.”
Its prostitutes, lesbianism and treatment of the Torah upset them and raise fears that it would feed anti-semitism but it gets staged in Berlin (at the Deutsches Theatre with Rudolf Schildkraut as the father) then in St Petersburg and elsewhere in Europe, in Constantinople and even in New York. Successive portrayals of the closing scene mark its progress in Yiddish theatre while a highlight is “the rain scene” with its woman and woman kiss.
In 1922, an English translation is produced at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village. Schildkraut again plays the father and the actresses playing lovers Rifkele and Manke are also lovers in real life. There is a transfer to Broadway, but the producer recasts Rifkele and the script is drastically altered, with the rain scene and its kissing deleted. Despite the changes, the producer and the company still find themselves in court charged with obscenity.
This is a passionate retelling of history seen through a queer lens that continues with the growing anti-semitism of the '30s and '40s seeing Asch forbidding further performances of his play, while in the ghetto in Lodz, Lemml stages it before he and his starving actors are lined up for the gas chambers.
Post-war, menaced by McCarthy, Asch moves to England. When a young American Jew makes a new translation of God of Vengeance, Asch still won’t allow its performance.
Writer Paula Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman (who had made an earlier treatment of the 1923 court case) created this production together. Played on the bare boards of Riccardo Hernandez's setting, in front of a gold frame like a proscenium arch, it is rooted in theatre. Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva’s klemzer music and David Dorfman’s choreography carry the play swirling forward. Projections add information Brecht-like, provide translations or indicate the language the characters speak, though we hear it in English, and there are moments of tableau when the play takes “a blink” to underline points.
The multi-role playing of the cast has richness and passion. Peter Polycarpou is the Father and actor Schildkraut who plays him with Beverley Klein his wife; Cory English is an infuriated rabbi and a stern judge among other roles; Joseph Timms is Asch and Eugene O’Neill; Molly Osborne and Alexandra Silber are the lovers and the actresses who perform them while Finbar Lynch’s Lemml creates a bond with the audience, firm in his belief in Asch’s play’s importance.
Musicians Merlin Shepherd, Anna Lowenstein and Josh Middleton aren’t only instrumentalists; they all take part in the action.
Indecent plays 1 hour 45 minutes without interval and is so engaging I wanted it longer. It spreads its net wide but makes its effect through its detail and images that resonate. The “rain scene” may now make one see gas chamber showers, but what could seem a stark catalogue of religious, sexual and political intolerance becomes also a celebration of queer love, Jewish culture and difference. Both moving and joyous, surely this is destined for the West End.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton