Paula Vogel has a signature and style of writing we have come to expect in her plays. Jumping back and forth in time, breaking the fourth wall, quippy scene titles, often actors playing multiple roles, are all a part of her go to creative milieu. And yet, for all the quirky constructs you’d be hard pressed to find another playwright that can create the honesty, authenticity and emotion that she is capable of bringing to the stage.
In her review for Newsday, Linda Winer asked "Has there ever been anything quite like Indecent, a play that touches — I mean deeply touches — so much rich emotion about history and the theater, anti-Semitism, homophobia, censorship, world wars, red-baiting and, oh, yes, joyful human passion?”
If there is, I certainly have yet to see it.
Indecent is a beautifully constructed story from start to finish and the Guthrie does an exemplary job meeting the challenge and staving off a potential sophomore slump in this first regional production since the Broadway debut last Spring. Go! Everyone should GO and see this show!
Set in a archetypal theatre space, formerly a Golden Age house in a state of crumbling decay, the “acting troupe,” (who starts onstage during seating, not usually something I’m a fan of), animates, emptying dust from their hats and pockets. The rich pallet of dark jewel tones create a cinematic feel as we’re thrown back into another time and given the preface and context of the story.
The “troupe” is introduced and immediately we are told how the parts are distributed: The elderly couple will play all the grandparents, the wise and mature characters; the next couple will play the leading men and women, parents and professionals; and the young couple, the lovers, the engenues, the children. It makes perfect sense and though the actors (virtually flawlessly) move back and forth from character to character, we can tell who they are because it was spelled out for us right at the beginning. Such a great idea and so well executed. The actors did a phenomenal job maintaining this.
The highlight for me was New York based actor, Ben Cherry, who plays LEMML, the Stage Manager/Narrator, who not only helps us follow the story, but whose utter unabashed love for the theatre is so contagious and so pure you can’t help but fall in love with him AND the theatre alike. He is the constant throughout the show, and though the journey spans over five decades and clocks in at an hour and forty-five minutes without an intermission, I was hooked the entire time.
Aside from the seminal script and the talented “troupe” of actors, the design elements deserve a huge shout out as well. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set is literally breathtaking (check out this time lapse!). The crumbling theatre space is a character unto itself. The worn out and missing seats, the ornate yet broken balcony, the plastic tarps hanging limp and listless, the oculus in the center of the ceiling, create a mysterious space crawling with character and history. After reading the program notes I learned that it’s an interpretation of the abandoned Sattler Theatre space in Buffalo New York, but I couldn’t help likening the oculus to the Pantheon in Rome. That open space lends itself to a feeling of being closer to a higher power and it elevated the whole experience for me.
The lighting and projection were also key to the success of the play and this production. Josh Epstein’s ethereal lighting brought a dreamy haze to the stage complimenting it’s cinematic nature, and Alex Basco Koch’s projections were a prefect answer to Ms. Vogel’s jumps in time. This not only helped us find our temporal barings but helped go back and forth between English and Yiddish translations, another brilliant Vogelian construct emphasising the importance of maintaining Jewish culture, heritage, and identity during the onset of the world wars and the travel to America.
Ms. Anne Kennedy must be congratulated on her simple yet gorgeous period costumes. Staying with the darker colors she pops some maroon and greens and makes clear the character changes with identifiable costume pieces that can move from actor to actor, as a character ages, seamlessly.
Lastly, Lisa Gutkin, the Music Director and Co-Composer, brings the “with music” to The Play. What can I say, the three piece Klezmer Band is awesome. Not only do they accompany the songs and scene changes but they are characters in the play, and their music controls the mood and tempo at all times. At one point the playwright SHOLEM ASCH at his typewriter becomes percussion for the underscoring. So clever! All in all, it is an integral part of show and it definitely would not have had the same visceral effect without it
Even an affluent and recognized playwright such as Paula Vogel needs to edit, and after spending years developing the play (with co-creator, director Rebecca Taichman), and over 400 rewrites, it’s almost serendipitous that this play become prominent today. Set at a time when immigrants were changing the face of America, this play is an unapologetic look at an explosive moment in theatrical history! “I noticed a rise of hate speech towards immigrants. I noticed a kind of divide and conquer mentality in terms of family values.” Vogel expressed during a Guthrie interview.
The play is a reminder of where our country came from and how we cannot afford to go back down the path of hate, bigotry and closed mindedness. Perhaps now more than ever this play is imminently important, as it confronts the hate that has had an unchallenged resurgence in our communities and in our country in such forms as anti-semitism, anti-immigrants, homophobia and sexism.
At the risk of sounding preachy, I think people need to recognize this, feel the heart and strength Indecent offers instead, and remember that only together are we truly great. My fear is that, with a lot of theatre (and art in general), the mirror is being held up to people already in that know. I want this experience to be shared by everyone. I applaud Ms. Vogel and The Guthrie on presenting the love and beauty in such effortless storytelling and again, encourage ALL of you reading to grab your family...your extended family...your neighbors and community members...and GO see it!