“Indecent” is both the title of Paula Vogel’s impressionistic chronicle of a 1907 melodrama by novice playwright Sholem Asch, as well as the critical and legal opinion of the work once it arrived on Broadway in the early 1920s.
While Vogel’s play serves as a production history of Asch’s God of Vengeance, it is also much more – a portrait of survival of a piece of theater under siege and the very survival of the Jewish people and their culture, caught in the crosshairs of genocide.
Although the story is epic, it is related by a cast of only seven, accompanied by a tiny klezmer band of three musicians. The actors first appear to be a moribund, otherworldly troupe. Gray of countenance with streams of ash pouring out of their clothes sleeves, they are brought back to life to tell the story of God of Vengeance. And while their tale is dark in tone, that does not stop them from kicking up their heels and conveying it with folk song and dance flourishes.
Far ahead of his time, Asch broke considerable theatrical ground with his first play, which humanizes its Jewish characters with frailties and flaws, as well as depicting a lesbian couple who engage in what is considered to be the first ever same-sex onstage kiss. Yet the Yiddish-language God of Vengeance played – and was acclaimed and accepted – throughout Europe, and even in New York’s Lower East Side. It is when it reaches for the legitimacy of Broadway, with an English translation and that female kissing scene deleted, that the production is halted by the police and the performers arrested for public indecency.
The skeletal, yet complex script is brought to vibrant life in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ season opener by director J. Barry Lewis, aided by choreographer/associate director Lynnette Barkley and an A-team of designers. Efforts broke down in an attempt to make this a co-production with GableStage of Coral Gables. While that company will be producing its own take on Indecent in late January, Dramaworks has set the bar high against which any subsequent mounting of the play will be compared.
Rather than offer a condensed version of God of Vengeance, Vogel presents us with a montage of the play’s final sequence – an enraged Orthodox Jewish brothel owner, Yekel, hurling a Torah scroll down on his rebellious daughter, Rifkele – performed in theaters from Berlin to St. Petersburg to Constantinople. And eventually, the playwright lets us see that infamous kiss between Rifkele and her prostitute-lover – an innocent scene to our 21st -century eyes.
With the exception of Lemml (Jay Russell), the rookie stage manager who becomes God of Vengeance’s staunchest advocate, the cast keeps morphing into a variety of characters. The result is a textbook example of a performance ensemble. Still, there are standouts in the company, including Cliff Burgess as the earnest Asch, Mark Jacoby as the troupe’s venerable impresario, Rudolph Schildkraut, and Dani Marcus and Kathleen Wise as the lovers, onstage and off. Kudos also to the band – Anna Lise Jensen (violin), Spiff Wiegand (accordion) and Glen Rovinelli (clarinet and other woodwinds) – who insinuate themselves throughout the production.
Scenic designer Michael Amico comes up with a relatively simple, but evocative playing space, leaving it to Paul Black’s lighting to define locations and moods. Similarly, Brian O’Keeffe’s costumes declare character and change fluidly with the slightest of accessory pieces.
In what could well be Dramaworks’ most ambitious season yet, with a world premiere, a musical, a Pulitzer Prize winner and an unabashed comedy, Indecent demonstrates how the company is up to whatever challenges it gives itself.
INDECENT, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday, Nov. 11. $75. 561-514-4042 or www.palmbeachdramaworks.org.