At the Victory Gardens Theater
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Sholem Asch was a Polish novelist and playwright who became an American citizen and wrote in Yiddish. Asch was a recognized figure on the literary scene of Europe and the United States during the early 20th century but he isn’t much heard of now (he died in 1957). However, playwright Paula Vogel may stimulate an Asch revival with her riff on “God of Vengeance,” which she calls “Indecent.”
Vogel has made “God of Vengeance” into the centerpiece of an absorbing play that, among other things, celebrates the capacity of art to survive against almost insurmountable odds. That’s asking a lot from a play that runs only 90 minutes without an intermission. But Vogel has brought forth one of her finest works, splendidly realized in the complex yet accessible production at the Victory Gardens Theatre.
“Indecent” is essentially the history of a play, from its inception to triumph to howling controversy. The flashpoint for many people, including both official and self-appointed censors, was Asch’s open and sympathetic depiction of lesbianism, not a hot button issue today perhaps, but a topic that created an uproar of outrage (and some praise) back in 1923 when it opened on Broadway.
Asch’s play was initially was performed in Yiddish, a language foreign to the mainstream American playgoing audience. But when an English translation opened on Broadway, the censors and moralizers came out in fury and the entire cast was arrested on charges of obscenity. A large segment of the public, both Jew and gentile, were not ready for an open display of homosexuality
“God of Vengeance” won applause in Europe and gained widespread acceptance among immigrant Jews in New York City. The play essentially was about Yekel, a domineering Jewish patriarch who runs a brothel from his basement. His virgin daughter Chana falls in love with the prostitute Halina, leading to some pretty intimate sexual scenes on stage.
“Indecent” is a tricky play to stage. The action quickly moves back and forth in time between 1906 and 1952, cued by projections on the stage back wall. Locations change, the actors perform multiple roles, and on-stage musicians play Jewish folk music on and off throughout the production. The characters slip between Yiddish and English, with Yiddish spoken in straight English dialogue and Yiddish dialogue in accented English. The pace is brisk but the first-rate Victory Gardens ensemble keeps the narrative easy to follow under the assured guidance of director Gary Griffin.
“Indecent” is sad, not surprise considering the grim subject matter. But there is much humor and Vogel avoids milking the Holocaust background for melodrama. Everyone in the audience knows what happened to the Jews during the 1930’s and early 1940’s in central and eastern Europe. Vogel doesn’t manipulate or exploit, but the tragedy of the period hangs like a pall over the action.
The action is enclosed within a basic drab box set. The opening moment of the play shows the nine actors standing shoulder to shoulder in a line, with ashes draining from the sleeves of their clothing, setting the atmosphere for what is to follow. The story then plunges into the story of Asch’s play, a work Asch’s wife applauds because it exposes “The roots of all evil—the money, the subjugation of women, the false piety” and the tyrannical Jewish father.
Many Jews of the day took offense Asch’s realism, angry at a play that they claimed displayed Jews to the outside world as pimps and prostitutes. “You are pouring petrol on the flames of anti-Semitism,” one Jewish character complains. It’s an accusation familiar throughout modern Jewish literature. Philip Roth endured it for decades.
This is a true ensemble production, but the first among equals in the staging is Benjamin Magnuson, who distinguishes himself in several roles, mainly as Lemml, a tailor who becomes the stage manager of “God of Vengeance” on its international tour. Magnuson contributes a gentle and wise portrait of a little man who believes in Asch’s play and has no illusions about the way the world is turning on him and other Jews. David Darlow, one of the reliables in Chicagoland theater, is excellent as the malignant father in “God of Vengeance” and bitter as Asch at the end of his life, a man who watched European Jewish life dismantled by the Nazis.
Kiah Stern and especially Catherine LeFrere giving winning performances both as actresses and as the two lesbian characters in Asch’s play. Also praiseworthy are Noah LaPook, Cindy Gold, and Andrew White. Adding a nostalgic folk music element to the evening are actors Matt Deitchman on accordion and Elleon Dobias, frequently accompanied by other performers doubling on string instruments.
The designers establish a unifying visual and aural flow to a narrative that shifts gears quickly in time, place, and language. So, props to Jeffrey Kmiec (scenic design), Mara Blumenfeld (costume design), Keith Parham (lighting design), and Chris LaPorte (sound design). Stephen Mazurek provides the projection design. Kristina Fluty is credited as intimacy coach, which presumably means she is responsible for the touching and passionate love scenes between LeFrere and Stern.
There are a few Yiddish words scattered throughout the script, the playbill providing a selected glossary. But as the saying goes, you don’t have to be Jewish to be entertained by the play and find it meaningful and informative. The show won’t pole ax the viewer with raw emotion, but the audience should be moved. Hopefully, some enterprising theater will take on “God of Vengeance” for a full revival. Vogel has supplied bits and scenes but “Indecent” proves that there may be a neglected hit in the Asch original.
The show gets a rating of
“Indecent” runs through November 4 at the Victory Gardens Theater, 2433 North Lincoln Avenue. Performances are Tuesday through Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 3 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $29 to $77. Call 773 871 3000 or visit www.victorygardens.org.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. October 2018
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