Writer: Paula Vogel
Director: Rebecca Taichman
Indecent is a surprisingly joyous treatment of what, in prospect, is a sober topic. In 1907, Yiddish writer Sholem Asch read aloud his first play Got fun Nekome (God of Vengeance) to a group of elders. “Burn it!” was the response. Nonetheless, Asch’s determination to overturn traditional Jewish pieties – the play is set in a brothel – won over audiences across Europe. By the 1920s, against a background of increasingly oppressive immigration legislation, it proved a hit in New York. But God of Vengeance remained controversial, in particular its daring “rain scene” in which two young women share a passionate kiss. The company were tried for indecency in 1923, but the play’s sheer vitality survived right up to the point when Asch, in response to the genocide, forbid future performances of it.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel gives this material a semi-musical treatment – the ten-strong cast includes three accomplished klezmer players (Merlin Shepherd, Anna Lowenstein and Josh Middleton) whose irresistible music gives the play its Yiddish heart. Together they play a small theatrical company, touring their production of God of Vengeance. Director Rebecca Taichman gives each short scene punch and pzazz. At one moment we are in a Berlin cabaret, at another watching the newly arrived actors waiting anxiously in line at Ellis Island. The surtitles in Yiddish and English signal leaps ahead with the simple direction “In a blink”, keeping the action pacy.
Choreographed by David Dorfman, the trouple’s dancing is a constant delight, in particular that of Peter Polycarpou as the chief protagonist, who moves effortlessly from elderly shuffling to mischievous leaps for the sheer joy of movement. He is at his most touching in a scene in which we realise, with a shock, that the cast are now staging performances in Lodz Ghetto. He takes on the role of a master of ceremonies, cheekily inviting the audience to respond by throwing bread.
Holding the troupe together is Lemml, played with quiet integrity by Finbar Lynch, his melancholy eyes capable of sparkling with joy. Lemml has been passionately committed to the play since its first reading and it is his vision which steers the play through the tricky years ahead.
The play’s repeated iterations of key moments is surprisingly effective. The final melodramatic seconds of God of Vengeance where the furious brothel owner menaces his cowering womenfolk with fake Torah scrolls, becomes increasingly comic thanks to Beverley Klein, as his wife, producing ever more histrionic howls. Similarly the repeated scene of the lesbian kiss is given subtle shading and intensity. Early on, Molly Osborne’s innocent character tentatively suggests to her onstage, more experienced lover (Alexandra Silber), that they rehearse off stage. Possibly a single lesbian kiss is a lot to hang a whole play on – the offensiveness of the brothel setting fades into the background. But what is certainly remarkable is the wonderful coup de théâtre which accompanies the final full-blown embrace, especially given the theatre’s diminutive stage. But then the Menier Chocolate Factory has always punched well above its weight.
The terrible shadow of what is to come is no less powerful for being understated. A mixture of telling imagery and poignant silence bears witness to the inevitable tragedy.
Runs until 27 November 2021