Editor’s Note: This piece was updated after the reporter saw the show.
How much does fear of the “other” impact political, social and judicial events in this country?
That question hovers over the play Indecent, written by Paula Vogel and directed by Kelsey Leigh Ervi at Northwestern University’s Josephine Louis Theater.
Opening night’s sell-out performance is a powerful and moving indictment of the damage and dangers of artistic censorship and bigotry. It ends on a life-affirming note that is dramatic, surprising and ultimately joyous.
The Northwestern students featured in the show are all wonderful. There is no star in this show because of how many parts the actors play and the interdependence of the cast. They help one another get in and out of costume changes, move furniture and props, and support one another in ways both seen and unknown. This group shines: Samuel Rosner (Lemml), Lucia Padilla Katz (Chana), Andy Hartman (Avram), Gabrielle Bieder (Halina), Sean Zuckerman (Mendel), Sarah Welford (Vera) and Harrison Lewis (Otto).
The three musicians are on stage for almost the entire one hour and 55 minutes of the show, and they contribute mightily to the show’s atmosphere: Otto Vogel (Moriz, accordion), Jesse Ji (Saul, violin) and Noah Stone (Mayer, Clarinet).
Tal Schatsky choreographed the dance scenes, Milo Bue designed the scene set that transported the audience from 1906 Poland to 1950s Connecticut (plus countless of other locales), and Lia Wallfish designed costumes that both clothed the performers and told stories about them in such a way that small details are significant. Otto Vogel directed the music.
Yun Lin (lighting design), Brandon Reed (sound design) and Dwight Bellisimo (projection design) added valuable layers to the production through their specialties. It really does take a village to produce a play of this caliber on a small stage where each inch of space and the importance of each decision is magnified.
The play was created jointly by Vogel and Rebecca Taichman in 2015, and directed by Taichman at Yale Repertory Theatre. Vogel won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1998 for How I Learned to Drive.
The genesis of Indecent is based on an actual occurence: the uproar surrounding a different play, God of Vengeance, written in 1906 by Sholem Asch, a Jewish writer living in Poland who wrote in Yiddish and Hebrew.
Indecent is Vogel’s representation of how God of Vengeance affected Asch and the cast. It mixes dramatic license with historical facts and moves rapidly through time and geography, opening in Warsaw, Poland, in 1907 and concluding in Connecticut in the 1950s.
The themes Indecent grapples with are contemporary: antisemitism, freedom of artistic expression, censorship, denial of the (then-impending) Holocaust, religious hypocrisy, parental conflict, the portrayal of a same-sex relationship and anti-immigrant bias.
There are also lighthearted, even comical, moments filled with singing and dancing and the bonds of community. It is a serious play, but it affirms love.
Ervi, a graduate student in the NU School of Communication, has been eager to direct this play since first hearing of it being workshopped, and then later, produced.
“When it came to choose a thesis production for my time here at Northwestern, I was really looking for something that involves music and movement, that had queer themes in it and that revolved around identity and community. This checked all of those boxes,” Ervi said. “It certainly is very appropriate for our time today, where there’s an increase in anti-queer and anti-trans legislation and there is a resonant antisemitism. And I just think, you know, sadly, it is a play for right now.”
Asch depicted the complex realities of small town Jewish life in Poland. God of Vengeance is about a wealthy brothel owner and his wife, a former prostitute, who live above their brothel and who are the parents of a virtuous teenage daughter, Rivkele. They seek a respectable marriage for her, but are stymied because of the source of their wealth. To “watch over” Rivkele, the father commissions a Torah scroll. Unbeknownst to her father, Rivkele befriends one of the prostitutes working in the basement and falls in love. The dreams of the father come crashing down; he has no use for the Torah, his wife and daughter any longer.
God of Vengeance was a smash hit in Europe and translated into several other languages. Years later it was translated into English and in 1922 opened in a theater in Greenwich Village in New York before moving uptown to Broadway in February 1923. Within a month, the entire cast, the producer and the owner of the theater were arrested on obscenity charges. They were found guilty, but the conviction was later overturned on appeal.
Indecent requires seven actors to fill its 39 roles. Except for the role of The Stage Manager, who is constant throughout the production, each of the other six actors are responsible for six or seven roles. The Northwestern students featured in the show are Samuel Rosner, Lucia Padilla Katz, Andy Hartman, Gabrielle Bieder, Sean Zuckerman, Sarah Welford and Harrison Lewis.
There are also three musicians, “a classic Klezmer trio,” who are on stage throughout the play, although they have nonspeaking parts.
The obscenity complaint was lodged with the police by the rabbi of Temple Emanuel in New York City. He felt the play was “blasphemous” on all levels, according to Ervi. He was worried the play would encourage further antisemitism based on its setting in a brothel and the unpleasant character of the father/brothel owner. But Asch was trying to portray Jews as “complex beings,” said Ervi, even if that meant showing unpleasant realities.
One need not be Jewish to be entertained by Indecent. Noah Marcus, the dramaturg for the production, said, “The beautiful thing about storytelling and about theater as an artistic medium in particular is the way in which something universal is brought out through something specific.”
Tickets for Indecent are available at the box office; the play runs April 21-23 and April 27-30. The play was created jointly by Vogel and Rebecca Taichman in 2015, and directed by Taichman at Yale Repertory Theatre. Vogel won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1998 for How I Learned to Drive.