When Sholem Asch’s most controversial play, God of Vengeance, hit the New York City stage in 1923 the reaction among those who felt offended was so intense it shattered the lives of the writer, the actors, and producers.
But those involved in the play and many theatre patrons in the Lower East Side, across the U.S. and in Europe loved it for what it sought to portray even though the original scenario included a same-sex kiss and budding relationship.
The guardians of Jewish political correctness in 1920s New York were offended that the father ran a whorehouse in the basement, that his daughter was in love with one of the prostitutes, and that he financed a Torah scroll seeking legitimacy in the community.
Indecent, the play written by Paul Vogel that opens at the Segal Centre April 28, presents an overview of Asch’s seminal work, from its creation in Warsaw in 1906, past the Broadway turmoil and to a courageous performance in the darkness of the Lodz ghetto in the dark days of World War II, and beyond that, to 1952. The notorious kiss that was censored a century ago is restored and repeated in Indecent, as reported by the New York Times, “Not just once but in an assortment of fugue-like variations.”
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Vogel’s play, debuted at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 2015 and was performed over four months on Broadway in 2017. God of Vengeance had a profound effect on those involved with the original production, says director Lisa Rubin, Artistic and Executive Director at the Segal.
“It changed their lives, yet they were determined to fight for this play, come hell or high water!”
“Asch was just writing human characters, who happened to be Jewish …He was writing about the human condition. He had no agenda. In the play he’s fascinated by the love between these two women, with their love filling a void they were missing in their lives.”
Indecent is not a revisit of the play, Rubin notes, but about fighting for artistic freedom and “how the experience of art profoundly changes your life and what you will do to keep fighting for it.”
“This play is such an incredible opportunity to tell a story through a Jewish lens, in this case through a powerful Yiddish play that had a very interesting history.”
It includes the group of artists who arrive at Ellis Island and try to build a new life in America. For some it is successful, for others it’s not – a dichotomy that persists.
The beauty of the Jewish and Yiddish traditions is at the heart of the play. Its dynamics are layered with klezmer music played by actor-musicians. And it also brings alive the theme of how art can outlast even the most horrific tragedies.
“Even though many of the artists who fought for this play perished in the Holocaust, here we are still talking about it!” Rubin said.
There are no lead actors among the ten in this play – it is a troupe production and each plays several characters. Three of them play klezmer on violin, clarinet, accordion and other instruments.
Sam Stein, the Yiddish theatre veteran, plays half a dozen roles. Both he and Felicia Shulman, another seasoned actor, are named in the cast as The Elder. Ryan Bommarito acts as narrator in his role of stage manager.
As a follow-up, members of the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, some of whom performed the play on the Segal stage a decade ago, will read the play in Yiddish at the Segal Centre’s 77-seat cinema stage in Yiddish, with English and French supertitles, on May 5.
Notes Rubin: “Where else in the world is there a theatre company that did a full production of God of Vengeance in its original language? How can we acknowledge that and the legacy of the Yiddish theatre here without presenting the full-length play in its original language?”
Indecent runs April 28 to May 19. God of Vengeance will be read on May 5 at 7pm.
For tickets, call 514-739-7944 or go to tickets.segalcentre.org.