Review: From History's Ashes, A Love Story

June 11, 2019 | By Bruce R. Feldman

"Indecent," Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, June 5 – July 7, 2019

In Brief: The creative team behind "Indecent" have conjured up an immersive tale that begins with the controversy over a 1907 Yiddish play about a lesbian love affair and expands to include thorny questions of censorship, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism that reverberate to the present day. It’s a vital, transporting production deserving of close attention and the highest praise.

Just after the turn of the last century, the young Polish writer Sholem Asch fashioned a curious play, in Yiddish, which would gain him early notoriety. Asch would go on to become a celebrated novelist, twice nominated for a Nobel Prize, but the tumult surrounding this work from his formative years would plague him for the rest of his life.

The cast of "Indecent," now at the Ahmanson Theatre (Photo: Craig Schwartz)

God of Vengeance was set in a brothel run by a devout Jew whose daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes rather than marrying the Yeshiva student her father intended. As if that weren’t inflammatory enough, the play ends on a histrionic note with the anguished parent hurling a sacred Torah scroll to the floor.

These would be profane subjects even for today’s audiences. Many Jewish theatregoers and intellectuals of Asch’s time were outraged. The great Polish writer I.L. Peretz advised him to burn the play.

Asch persisted. God of Vengeance enjoyed a successful Berlin production directed by Max Reinhardt. It was then staged in Yiddish theaters around the globe and in translation throughout Europe. A New York production in Yiddish was labeled immoral by some but lauded as an artistic achievement by others, especially for a lyrical scene in which the two women kiss in the rain. Some Jews cared about neither morality nor art. They had lived through the Russian pogroms and feared that the play would prompt more anti-Semitic backlash.

In 1923 the play was translated into English and presented on Broadway. Its run was cut short when the cast and producer were indicted – and later convicted – on charges of obscenity.

In Indecent, a versatile ensemble of seven skillful actors – each playing multiple roles – and three on-stage musicians exquisitely recount the divisive arc that Asch and his play took. By themselves, these incidents paint a mesmerizing portrait of a bygone era when Yiddish theaters and literature flourished and Jewish writers and philosophers struggled to reconcile deep-rooted religious tradition with modern-day values.

"They brilliantly weave all of these themes into a seamless succession of non-linear episodes, or blinks of time, as they are called on the titles projected on the back wall of the theatre at the start of each scene."

Rather than simply reconstruct the play’s freighted journey – which would have been absorbing in itself – the writer of Indecent, Paula Vogel, and its director, Rebecca Taichman, contextualize these incidents into the broader trajectory of Jewish history. The Holocaust looms large, of course. In the opening scene, Vogel and Taichman (who won a Tony Award in 2017 for best director) have the actors introduce themselves as ghosts rising from the grave, the literal dust of death wafting from their sleeves as they rise to address the audience. It’s an explicit but effective image, one that is repeated several times during the performance.

The dramatists also raise timeless questions about censorship, xenophobia – both within and from outside the Jewish world – and the role an author should play in defending his ideas. (Asch refused to speak at the New York obscenity trial, ostensibly claiming that his English wasn’t good enough. Later in life he disavowed his play completely.)

They brilliantly weave all of these themes into a seamless succession of non-linear episodes, or blinks of time, as they are called on the titles projected on the back wall of the theatre at the start of each scene. The overall effect is often dreamlike, thanks not only to superior writing, direction, and acting, but also to Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva’s evocative period score and David Dorfman’s lovely choreography, which extends well beyond the musical numbers to incorporate a good deal of lyrical movement into the dramatic scenes, as well.

The action takes place on a mostly bare stage designed by Riccardo Hernandez and aided immeasurably by the atmospheric lighting of Christopher Akerlind (another 2017 Tony winner).

Asch, the provocateur, wrote about real people in conflict with their deepest emotions and desires trying to make their way in a world that could not accept them. That both his words and Indecent resonate so sharply today underscores this basic reality: the longings of the human heart can never be denied, no matter how hard society tries. And try they will.

That’s as true today as it was in 1907.

"Indecent," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 213.628.2772, www.centertheatregroup.org

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