Center Stage, Baltimore’s preeminent professional theatre, has never shied away from controversial pieces. How delicious that the current production of Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” is all about that very topic – controversial theatre – which this fearless company presents with no-holds-barred aplomb. This is a match made in theatrical heaven.
In Ms. Vogel’s writing and the performance of this company, the point seems to be to entice the audience to think. And feel.
Based on the real-life events that surrounded literary figure Sholem Asch’s Yiddish play, “God of Vengeance,” this is an unflinching view of the decades between the play’s inception in an artists’ salon in Warsaw between 1907 and the 1950s and how the tortured, fantastic journey that the play served as the centerpiece for affected the players that presented it, and reflected the zeitgeist of the eras in which it played. Ms. Vogel has crafted a backstory that illuminates with perfection the characters both within Asch’s play and the people who played those parts, especially Asch himself.
Posing such soul-searching questions as, when does shining a light on a people, in this case, Jews of Eastern Europe during times that included regular pogroms and rampant anti-Semitism, do more of a disservice to those people by exposing their all too human foibles and failings? When does portraying the love between two women simply amplify the theme of love without crossing the line into titillation and perceived perversion? In Ms. Vogel’s writing and the performance of this company, the point seems to be to entice the audience to think. And feel. To know just a little more about the Jewish experience of those times. This is theatre at its best. That’s what great theatre is supposed to do.
Directed by Eric Rosen, there are so many impressive directorial choices that I can’t begin to list them. I don’t know how much of it is written in the script or is the splendid vision of the production team but even before the house lights go down, Mr. Rosen has one of the central characters sitting amidst the detritus of what appears to be someone’s attic full of the flotsam and jetsam of a lifetime, including boxes and chairs, suitcases and valises, an old piano and other unloved objects. There are no wasted set pieces.
Mr. Rosen paces the entire hour and 40-minute show with a sure, steady hand that never lets the action suffer, not even during the tenderest of moments, of which there are many. Jack Magow’s set design is flawless, evoking rooms and periods, stages and emotions that perfectly frame each scene. Josh Epstein’s moody lighting expertly captures the feel of each period and the interplay of the projections on the narrow strips of wood that outline the stage is incredibly well done. Linda Roethke beautifully dresses the ensemble in the earthy and somber hues which accentuate the period.
In a play that has moments of such gravitas as this one does, it is an unexpected delight to see such clever choreography. Erika Chong Shuch does a terrific job, never straying into the Broadway-esque choreo moves that would have totally ill-defined the piece. Her work reminds me of the almost slo-mo moves done in the musical “Once,” or even the adagio number from “Billy Elliott,” though this is totally new ground she covers, incorporating the ethnic dance moves most often seen at Jewish celebrations. And the music direction by Alexander Sovronsky provides an element that absolutely elevates the production. Having actors on stage who become the musicians and actually play the instruments with real expertise is rarely seen on stage, let alone in a piece like this. Outstanding.
The cast is made up of a combination of New York and locally based actors, each of whom brings such a degree of talent and professionalism that it brought a tear to my eye time and again at the sheer artistry of these performers. Most played multiple characters, bouncing around time periods and accents like seasoned pros. Doing stand out work were Victor Raider-Wexler, Susan Rome, Susan Lynskey, Maryn Shaw and Emily Shackelford. Max Wolkowitz is brilliant as the young Asch.
Ben Cherry as Leml, heartbreakingly exuberant, reminded me of Roberto Benigni’s performance in ‘Life is Beautiful’. He literally jumps for joy to express his happiness, which makes it all the more impressive when he plays the scenes that show his more serious abilities as an actor.
It is a sad testament to our tedious times that themes such as anti-Semitism and the appropriateness of homosexual love are still themes that audiences need to be reminded of. Never Forget is the goal of the Jewish diaspora, as well it should be. We should never forget what happened to six million plus people during a reign of terror. What is even sadder is we are still dealing with elements that seek to marginalize if not outright destroy entire segments of humanity. Plays such as “Indecent” serve a higher purpose as a reminder of what was and remind us still to be vigilant. We ain’t out of those woods yet.
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission.
Advisory: Adult themes.
“Indecent” plays through March 31st, 2019 at Center Stage, 700 North Calver Street, Baltimore. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 332-0033, or purchase them online.