Deft and Unrelenting, Beautiful and Piercing

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During the writing of INDECENT, Paula Vogel cried almost every night that she spent penning the play. INDECENT follows the genesis and growth of Yiddish writer Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance, and Asch was met with constant attacks on his character and heritage for writing very human characters and about the life that he saw around him.

There is no escaping the struggles that surround us. Some may deal with their struggles easier than others and some may be better at hiding theirs. Despite the pain of the past, Vogel moved forward and wrote her play based on Asch’s life. Asch, despite being told to burn his play, found a company and players to bring his play to life, which in turn led the way for other troupes to perform his work across Europe.

This brings us to Honolulu, 2019. The ARTS at Mark’s Garage is working with the Open Home Performance Network to bring Vogel’s INDECENT to life. Director Lurana Donnels O’Malley writes in her director’s note that the play “feels more than ever like a beacon in the night, signaling our path toward a world with no hate.” Our world is embroiled in hate and turmoil, with more countries and their populations shifting towards nationalism and concentration camps once again appearing on American soil among the thousands of injustices in our nation and across the globe. Now is the time for plays like INDECENT, where there are gentle yet firm reminders that the fight for what is right will be hard, that hope is never truly extinguished, and love prevails.

INDECENT opens with its cast rising from the ashes in a completely arresting opening number. We are introduced to the players- Avram (Adam Brading), Vera (Ann Brandman), Mendel (Brandon Caban), Otto (Tyler Haugen), Lemml the Stage Manager (Adrian Khactu), Halina (Annie Lokomaika'i Lispcomb), and Chana (Christina Uyeno), and they are accompanied by the musicans Moriz Godowsky (Sean T.C. O’Malley) and Nelly Friedman (Ruby O’Malley). They are a troupe, and while Sholem Asch’s The God of Vengeance is on the program, they also take the audience across the life and times of the play.

The God of Vengeance by Asch was controversial because of how it perceived its characters, who were Jewish. The brothel keeper is a God fearing Jewish man, trying to wed his daughter off to a yeshiva student to better her station in life. However, she ends up falling in love with one of the brothel keeper’s prostitutes, and is thus reprimanded by her father as he throws his newly commissioned Torah scroll at her. This perception of a Jewish man profiting off of a sinful life came across as an attack on Asch’s own heritage when he first sought to get it published, and the lesbian scene between the daughter and the prostitute was thought to be too obscene at the time.

Vogel has the cast take us through the early days of Asch shopping his script around to him meeting his trusty stage manager, Lemml. Then, the story follows the production as it gets produced all across Europe, making its way across the pond to America, and all the various challenges and upsets that it faced in both. We see how Antisemitism in Europe changes Asch forever, we dreadfully see Lemml take a fated trip back to Europe because of his frustrations with America and Asch, and we see Asch telling an up and coming student interested in translating and producing his work the whole production is based on to burn it. The pace may seem brisk, but the work between Lurana’s staging conventions and Kat Altman’s projections help stabilize the timeline. In fact, the projections (which are just titles, but elevate the production so much) are tremendously helpful for communicating the stage convention of native languages. Namely, when a character speaks their native language, they speak in perfect English. When they are speaking another language, they are speaking English with an accent. The depth and nuance of linguistic transactions between all the players is beautiful and empowering to see visualized on stage.

The ensemble was magnificent to behold as each gave their all to tell this story piece by piece, each actor cycling through a bevy of roles. The idea of the casting is that the members of the troupe will always be playing their role type depending on what the scene is; for example Chana the ingenue will always play the actress playing the daughter of the brother owner, even though technically the actress is not the same. All of the actors commit to separating their characters fully, which is no small feat. Khactu as Lemml is the only one who consistently plays one character, and that’s the stage manager. While the play follows Asch’s production, Lemml becomes the anchor for the audience, and Khactu succeeds at bringing his eagerness for the stage and his work to life. Brading is a marvel to watch as he channels Asch during various times and ages. Caban is wonderfully oppressive as one of the producers that turns Asch down initially and then as one of the Jewish Americans that was instrumental in taking the cast and production of The God of Vengeance’s Broadway run down. One of my favorite scenes had Haugen and Brandman playing older versions of Asch and his wife Mathilde, and while Brading and Uyeno had been playing them all night, Haugen and Brandman brought a new depth to both characters that we haven’t seen while still maintaining the emotional throughlines that Brading and Uyeno had been building all night. One of the most poignant scenes that reduced me to tears was the much talked about rain scene featuring Lipscomb and Uyeno. The two had beautiful chemistry together, and when the audience finally gets to see the scene in its entirety we are treated to a scene filled to the brim with heart, soul, and love, so much in fact that one would say, “is this what they were afraid of?”

It was a different time. Impossibly long lines of immigrants were waiting for the opportunity of America. Jewish citizens clamored to take down The God of Vengeance on Broadway because they were worried it slandered their people who were already fighting an uphill battle in America. The many Star of David adorned Jewish people that still performed the play in their communities and ghettos were eventually made to get into impossibly long lines. It was a different time, and Vogel is both deft and unrelenting in her presentation of history.

The play is a success, and one of the reasons is that Lurana has assembled quite the design team. Sean and Ruby’s remarkable music wonderfully accents the evening, highlighting scenes and environmental cues. Sean learned how to play the accordion for this production (sounding quite adept at it that you couldn’t tell), and Ruby assumed many of the musical cues that were originally meant for the flute on her violin, and the product is a very round and wholesome sounding score that goes hand in hand with the production. Sean, also as music director, successfully led the cast to sounding loud and clear. Harmony Tesoro as the production’s choreographer shaped the cast beautifully as they moved on stage, her choreography helping to communicate otherwise complex and difficult ideas and emotions. Christopher Patrinos’ set pieces were carefully chosen and beautifully detailed, and his lighting design definitely played a huge part in the emotional roller coaster the audience took part of during the evening. Speaking of detailed, Teia O’Malley’s props were as well, from scripts to period appropriate looking suitcases and more. Carlynn Wolfe’s costume design and Mia Yoshimoto’s hair and makeup design had dynamic looks and designs to have key characters stand out, yet things were simple enough so that the cast could be a troupe and cycle in and out of dozens of characters scene after scene. The cast had the great challenge of tackling many accents throughout the production, and from there many degrees of fluency in those accents, and they sounded confident and well-placed throughout the night; as their accent coach, Sharon Garcia Doyle should be proud.

Paula Vogel’s INDECENT is an important play to see today as we watch history contort and repeat itself. Within slightly different contexts, yes, but happening nonetheless are the same homophobic, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant sentiments today that are communicated within Vogel’s texts. Yet, all is not fraught in the show- the play itself is a celebration of plays and theatre, of art, and of championing yourself to stand up for what you believe in. This is a play about a play about love, and it seems each facet of this production was tenderly crafted with ample amounts of it. INDECENT runs through June 30 at The ARTS at Mark’s Garage, for ticket sales and show info, click here.