Video on the making of ‘Indecent’ by David Lenk and John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.
Paula Vogel’s surprisingly modern play looks back at shocking theatrical scandal from a century ago
Indecent, by Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Paula Vogel, was inspired by Jewish novelist and playwright Sholem Asch’s controversial 1906 melodrama The God of Vengeance. The Vengeance plot is straightforward: In an effort to reclaim his standing in the community and regain favor in the eyes of his God, Yekel, the Jewish owner of a brothel he operates out of his basement, decides to marry his innocent and only daughter Rifkele to an upstanding Yeshiva student from a good family. Yekel means to redeem himself further by blessing the union with money and a holy, hand-painted Talmudic scroll. Things do not go as planned, however, when Rifkele reveals that she has formed a deep and reciprocated attachment to one of the prostitutes in her father’s employ.
Such a scandalous outcome was not ripe for approval in 1906. It created instant divisions. Despite glimmers of acceptance and even praise for it in parts of Europe, The God of Vengeance was broadly dismissed as an affront to decency. Any writer would have run into similar headwinds in dealing with a subject as loaded as lesbianism. That Asch was Jewish only added a layer of anti-Semitism to the play’s rejection.
Some 17 years later, when it was translated into English and its contents sanitized for a 1923 Broadway opening, the rewrite that had sought to mitigate the play’s sensationalism merely caused it to fail as well as offend. Six weeks into the run, the entire company was arrested and the production shuttered, despite an eventual exoneration.
“It definitely matters that the origins of the piece are Jewish. Indecent wouldn’t exist otherwise.” Nancy Keystone
What is striking about Vogel’s 2015 reimagining of Asch’s play, developed in close collaboration with her friend and colleague, Rebecca Taichman, is not just that Indecent openly tackles old attitudes about lesbianism, but that by going deep and wide, it emerges as a celebration of the pursuit of happiness and our human right to celebrate love found, accepted and unjudged. While re-imagining the construct of Asch’s play, the two women captured its historical resonance in an expanded modern context, turning an outmoded melodrama into a theatrical abstraction that relies on music, song, dance and humor to augment and emancipate it.
“For me,” said Nancy Keystone, “Indecent is not so much a re-invention of The God of Vengeance, as it is an exploration of that play, its origins and how it has traveled through history.”
Keystone, who staged Indecent for the DCPA Theatre Company, is an award-winning director, writer, scenic designer and visual artist who founded and runs her own theatre company in Los Angeles. She acknowledged that she avoided seeing the Broadway and touring productions of the play, because “I’m afraid I’m easily influenced.” She places the power of Indecent squarely within its Sholem Asch origins.
“Because it was developed collaboratively between the playwright [Vogel] and the director [Taichman], the theatrical/directorial elements are part of the DNA of the piece,” she said. “The melodramatic aspects of The God of Vengeance are part of the total landscape, while other parts of the stories woven through it, are told through different forms and tonalities.
“[Vogel and Taichman’s] curiosity about the lesbian relationship in the context of a Yiddish play of that era is at the heart of the piece,” she explained, as are “the male playwright who created it, the responses it provoked, and the contemporary resonance. There’s great intelligence and imagination in the way Indecent highlights and synthesizes the various worlds and threads of inquiry. It’s what makes it exciting.”
Given Indecent’s surprisingly modern drift, though, do its Jewish roots still matter?
“One can’t separate the Jewish aspect from the play,” she replied. “All the creators are Jewish” – Vogel and Taichman included. “It’s a story about a Jewish writer who wrote in a Jewish language about Jewish characters and Jewish conflicts, both within the Jewish community, and between Jews and the dominant culture. It all plays out in the context of world events that forever marked the history of the Jewish people.
“So, yes, it definitely matters that the origins of the piece are Jewish. Indecent wouldn’t exist otherwise. Yet for all that,” she emphasized, “there is a universality to it, which is part of its success.
“The play has many layers that work simultaneously. It takes place across half the 20th century and two continents,” she said, “with many different characters and events — both historical and fictional. It moves back and forth between the play-within-the-play, The God of Vengeance, and the history of that play, as well as the stories of acting troupes that performed it and the broad historical events in which the play and the actors are enmeshed.”
Keystone points to Indecent’s many stylistic jumps in time, the several languages spoken within it, the live music, the songs and choreographed movement, as its primary challenges. Vogel and Taichman intentionally — and effectively — connected it to the reverberations of the Holocaust and the persistence of anti-Semitism. These also reconnect us to Asch, who was profoundly damaged by the abuses and misunderstandings heaped on his play and to the misperceptions of its much broader point: Hatred’s abysmal failures and the significance of love’s power.
“One of the main challenges is to keep the story clear while celebrating the innate complications and theatricality of the piece,” Keystone said. “The play could be considered a collage or pastiche, turning on a dime between comedy, cabaret, drama, lyrical movement-theatre, etc. There are a lot of moving parts to integrate, orchestrate and propel.
“It’s a wonderful creation.”
Sylvie Drake is a translator and writer, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and former theatre critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times. She served for several years as director of Publications for The Denver Center for the Performing Arts and is a current contributor to culturalweekly.com, American Theatre magazine and the Los Angeles Times.
Photo gallery: Indecent production photos
All photos by Adams VisCom.
Indecent: Ticket information
- When: August 30-October 6 (Opens September 5)
- Where: Space Theatre
- Genre: Drama, history play with music
- Advisory: Contains adult themes, language and sexual content
- Tickets: Start at $30 and can be purchased at 303-893-4100 or in person in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis streets or online by clicking here:
Photo gallery: The making of Indecent in Denver
All photos by John Moore.