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Tuesday, June 11, 2019

F3Stage Review: A far from Indecent history lesson

Film Flam Flummox

From the moment one enters the Ahmanson Theatre to find its entire cast already seated, silent, on an open and nearly bare stage, director Rebecca Taichman announces the simple yet boundlessly clever stagecraft she brings to Indecent, which, as subtitled on a projection right above the cast, tells "the true story of a little Jewish play." That subtitle succinctly sums up the ostensible subject matter of Paula Vogel's play, but as the piece plays out over its brisk yet loaded two-hour, intermission-free run time, Vogel and Taichman's main concern appears less about that specific story and more about the greater and still-all-too-relevant scope of its thematic concerns.

One is also tempted to say one of those concerns is theatrical technique, for despite its undeniable creativity effectiveness, Taichman's approach keeps one hyper-aware of the theatrical artifice. Six of the seven actors in the cast are officially billed as just that--"Actor"--in the program, for they rotate with remarkable fluidity and versatility through a succession of roles in telling the decades-spanning story of Sholem Asch's landmark Yiddish play God of Vengeance. It begins from it and its author's humble beginnings in 1906 Warsaw and through the global success that leads the work to reach America and finally the Great White Way of Broadway in 1923. It is in the theater capital of the fabled land of the free that, ironically enough, the work runs into its big obstacle in its worldwide journey. A melodrama which earnestly tells of a romance that develops between two young women, including on-stage kiss between the two lovers--which then leads to it being shut down on grounds of indecency and its troupe of actors accordingly arrested. On the base level on the page, Vogel tells this story in as straightforward manner as summarized, with that somewhat by-the-book approach spilling over on stage with copious text supertitles being projected on the back wall (and, in a nice and rare note of mindfulness to those sitting on the sides, also on the left and right walls) serving as lower-thirds chyron equivalents for live theater, labeling characters, locations, time periods, and sometimes even offering supplemental information.

Those identifiers are crucial, not only as Vogel moves through the years but also as the actors impressively shuffle through different roles and even switch languages and accents, at many times on a dime. As mentioned, all but one of the acting septet covers multiple roles, classified by age group and temperament, the sole exception being Richard Topol (one of the four cast members from the original 2017 Broadway production reprising their roles at the Ahmanson) as Lemml, who is not only stage manager for God of Vengeance as it travels the globe over the years, but also serves as a meta one for the very production the audience watches. Thus encapsulates the central conundrum at the heart of this production. While the non-Topol six have a few roles that recur, including that of playwright Asch himself (which is shared by two of the billed Actors, Joby Earle and Harry Groener, at different ages), Vogel's script's briskness covering decades and the many people involved necessitates never delving too deeply into any of the characters, with Lemml and Asch the only having discernible arcs. But if characters then don't forge a strong connection with the audience, it then brings to greater prominence the broad thematic strokes of the piece, which appear to be Vogel's most paramount concern anyhow. While telling of a specific incident in history that centers around a specific community, not only are the general themes such as artistic censorship, immigration, ethnic and LGBTQ prejudice more universally relatable, they are sadly very relevant and timely in this day and age. In fact, given the political atmosphere of contemporary America, the entire scenario could have easily been adapted to current times, and it would ring all too painfully true.

Further making the ideas more resonant is Taichman's ingenious direction. The story theater approach, which frames the events as being presented by Lemml and his troupe from beyond the grave--or, rather, from ashes--may initially strike as a bit precious and on-the-nose, but by the haunting end, it becomes rather chilling. In between though, there's a fair amount of pure enjoyment to go with the heart rending drama, with a mix of period and original music by Lisa Gutkin (who, along with Patrick Ferrell and fellow Broadway production musician Matt Darriau, are on stage the entire time, even intermingling with the cast) making for some memorable dance moments (choreographed by David Dorfman) and serving as a propulsive engine through the numerous changes of scene, with Riccardo Hernandez's spare scenic design lent much versatility by Christopher Akerlind's expressive lighting concept. But most impressive is the cast, which in addition to Topol, Earle, and Groener includes Elizabeth A. Davis (who, in one scene, also plays the viola) and Broadway cast members Adina Verson, Mimi Lieber, and Steven Rattazzi. They all convincingly embody their numerous characters, and watching the six of seven seamlessly, repeatedly transform over the two hours adds additional excitement and even suspense. Indecent may ultimately be an informative if basic primer into the history of God of Vengeance and traditional Yiddish theater and Jewish-American playwrights, but it is executed in such an enthralling and inviting manner that one does feel compelled to investigate further.

Adina Verson and Elizabeth A. Davis in Indecent
(photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Indecent is now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles through Sunday, July 7.

Buy the Indecent Original Broadway Cast album CD here.
Buy the Indecent play text by Paula Vogel here.
Watch the Indecent Original Broadway Production here.
Buy The God of Vengeance play text by Sholem Asch here.

(Special thanks to Center Theatre Group)

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