Written by Paula Vogel
Directed by Joel Greenberg
Featuring: Matt Baram, Jonathan Gould, Jessica Greenberg, Tracy Michailidis, Dov Mickelson, Sarah Orenstein, Nicolas Rice, Laetitia Francoz-Lévesque, Emilyn Stam and John David Williams
A David Mirvish/ Studio 180 Theatre production
At the CAA Theatre in Toronto
If you have not yet seen Studio 180’s production of Indecent now playing at the CAA Theatre as part of the Off-Mirvish season, you still have several days before the show closes so by all means go see it. Joel Greenberg’s impeccable direction – and by that I truly do mean without flaw or fault – has given us a production that is every bit as good and then some as the performance I saw in New York pre-pandemic. And although it was the pandemic that unfortunately delayed its opening in Toronto, I knew then that Studio 180 under Greenberg’s able leadership, should be the theatre in Toronto to mount Paula Vogel’s compassionate take on the labors and doubts that plagued the playwright, Sholom Asch, as he wrote and produced his play God of Vengeance (in 1907), which toured Europe and finally had its controversial opening on Broadway in 1923.
So it was welcome news when the announcement finally came that the show would have its opening in Canada. What I must have missed somewhere is that this production is the final one for Greenberg as artistic director of Studio 180. He is retiring from the company that he co-founded 20 years ago and which took its name from the room number of the classroom where he taught drama to many students at the University of Waterloo who have since gone on to have stellar professional careers in the theatre.
God of Vengeance is one of those plays like Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening or Mae West’s Sex or even Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ re-working of Dion Boucicault’s An Octoroon, that call for a re-examination of the issues that were raised in their day in relation to those same issues that are still in contention to this day. In other words, there is a story behind the play – it’s condemnation by the press, charges of obscenity and immorality, whole casts along with the producers being arrested in the theatre and carted off to jail – that is well worth the telling.
Now there are two ways to approach this. You can produce the play itself and, in fact, God of Vengeance has received numerous productions over the years in new translations in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, while using program notes to cover the interesting backstory of the play. Or, you can do as Paula Vogel has so successfully done; combine both stories into one play. As Harley Granville-Barker once said, “why tell one story if you can tell two.”
The superb ensemble of actors (listed at the head of this review) play multiple roles with an evenness that is unstrained and consistent throughout. Although not a musical, Indecent does have music and song throughout and one of my first thoughts upon hearing that the play was coming to Toronto was “I hope they have a good clarinet player who can do klezmer.” In John David Williams they have found such a one, ably assisted by Laetitia Francoz-Lévesque on violin and Emilyn Stam on accordion.
Indecent covers a lot of ground both literally, figuratively and metaphorically. The opening scene introduces us to the actors, or “the Troupe” as they are called. These actors raise their arms in welcome but when they drop their arms we see an earthly dust that is expelled from the sleeves of their clothes and falls to the stage floor. The play about the play has begun. It is a melodramatic tale concerning a Jewish brothel owner who hypocritically wants to raise his daughter within a strict moral code that he himself does not follow. When she rebels and falls in love with a woman who works in her father’s business, he disowns her by condemning his own daughter to a life of prostitution. At the play’s conclusion, he furiously hurls the Torah to the ground in a violent rage.
This is the core of the story in God of Vengeance, which Paula Vogel uses like a leitmotif to construct a much deeper critique of society’s moral and religious codes, the nature of love (the lesbian love story is central to the plot line) and the cruelty that exists so close to the surface of what we call “civilized society.” By the end of the play, as World War II comes into focus, the drama seems to leave off as it began. We now know the fate of the Troupe. These revenants from the past have come back to haunt us with their story that ended in a nightmare. The one final moment of joy, love and beauty that is contained in the closing scene is the playwright’s (Vogel and Asch) hopeful final testimony to us all not to lose faith in these dark days of the present.
No spoiler alert here. Go and see the play while you still have the opportunity.