“My God, Sholem. It’s all in there. The roots of all evil: the money, the subjugation of women, the false piety … the terrifying violence of that father … and then Oh Sholem, the two girls in the rain scene! My god, the poetry in it — what is it about your writing that makes me hold my breath?” — Madje Asch talking to her husband, playwright Sholem Asch, in the opening minutes of “Indecent.”
“Indecent” follows Asch, his play “The God of Vengeance” and a dedicated troupe of players across time and continents, laying bare the 20th-century Jewish experience. It is at Center Stage through March 31, part of a three-way co-production with Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage and Kansas City Repertory Theatre.
Polish playwright and author Asch might have found it hard to imagine that his Yiddish work would be resurrected as a play within a play by award-winning playwright Paula Vogel more than 100 years after he wrote it. “Indecent” hit Broadway in 2017 to wide acclaim.
First produced in Germany in 1907, Asch’s “The God of Vengeance” resonates with political and social issues of today. Contemporary audiences may be surprised to learn that it was the first Yiddish play to be staged throughout Europe, successfully, in many different languages. But when it was produced in English on Broadway 96 years ago, the producer and cast were arrested and charged with obscenity, in part for its depiction of prostitution and lesbian love.
Vogel, a Washington, D.C.-based playwright, made waves with her 1992 Obie-award-winning play, “The Baltimore Waltz,” and won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1997 play, “How I Learned to Drive.” Like Vogel’s other works, “Indecent” doesn’t shy away from life’s complexities, dealing head-on with, censorship, immigration, discrimination, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, oppression, prostitution, religion and the right for people to love who they choose. All done with music, humor, pathos and break-neck pacing.
“I think the power of art is the power to wound our memory … is a way for us to change our worldview,” Vogel said in the Center Stage program. “I think art is our spiritual bread that we break together.”
“Indecent” director Eric Rosen, whose Baltimore roots go back to his grandmother who called Reisterstown home, was stunned when he first read “The God of Vengeance” as a theater grad student. A few years ago, when he heard about Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman collaborating on an adaptation of the play, he wanted in.
“I can remember where I was when I read ‘The God of Vengeance.’ I almost fell out of my chair when I got to the scene where the women kiss in the rain,” said Rosen, who is gay. “I thought I’d discovered the find of the century.”
Two years after that, Rosen co-founded [Chicago’s] About Face Theatre, an LGBTQ theater company.
“The foundations of what I started doing back in 1994, ’95, was rooted to this play,” he said. “When I heard it had come back around again, I was so excited.”
What particularly excites Rosen about “Indecent” and other plays that help honestly reflect LGBTQ lives, is its power to affect change.
“The actors are full of stories of young people coming up to them and telling them they’ve just come out, and many of them are Jewish,” Rosen said. “The capacity to see ourselves on stage is lifesaving. Young people seeing themselves in this peculiarly lesbian-Jewish story, from another time, and being charged by that, hopefully take forward the very Jewish idea of healing the world. If I can tikkun olam somebody to make change in their communities, to help their families and to help people younger than them, then I feel like that’s a good thing.”
Rosen said the play also has the capacity “to express our almost genetic grief.”
“To be able to mourn, to be able to feel something we all, everyone, as Jewish people know, this disastrous history that goes on and on and on,” he said. “The play names it and expresses it, and I think adds some moral urgency to questions of what we’re supposed to do about it.”
Baltimore actress Susan Rome, who has performed at Center Stage and also worked with Rosen before, plays six characters as the play moves through time, including three different actresses playing the same part in different eras.
But Rome, who has played multiple characters before on stage, said that’s not the play’s biggest challenge. The bigger challenges come in its poignant emotional moments, including when one of the characters, stage manager Lemml, talks about how “The God of Vengeance” has impacted him.
“Every time Lemml says, ‘This play changed my life,’ I get choked up, because I think that art has the power to not just change lives, but it has power to save lives,” Rome said. “When I saw this play in New York I felt like it changed my life. I was motionless at the end. I couldn’t breathe. Theater is really just storytelling and it has existed since people needed to tell stories about their hunt around a fire. When the play moves to the attic, it drops me right into that impulse — that we will gather quietly in the dark, to watch people tell a story, and experience the story through them and we will be transformed by it. And we will do it if it kills us.”
Rome said the cast is aware of how contemporary issues addressed in the play, constantly in flux, affect each audience differently.
“Immigration is a theme and artistic expression is a theme and sexual freedom is a theme,” Rome said. “Every single person in the audience is going to have a slightly different takeaway. We have to find a way of being truthful telling the same story every time and just trust that what’s important to them will resonate.”
“I can remember where I was when I read ‘The God of Vengeance.’ I almost fell out of my chair when I got to the scene where the women kiss in the rain.” — Eric Rosen, director of “Indecent”
Rabbi Ariana Katz, spiritual leader of Hinenu: The Baltimore Justice Shtiebel, said that not only is the congregation going to see “Indecent” as a group, Hinenu’s klezmer band will be playing an hour-long set in the lobby before the show. Katz and a member of the band will also participate in Center Stage’s Afterthoughts post-show program March 14, “Night Shtetl: From Persia to Poland and Back.”
Katz said that is fitting, since Hinenu is committed to preserving and fostering Jewish Diaspora culture.
“Representation of queer Jews in ‘Indecent’ matters because it reminds the world that Judaism and queer identity is not incompatible, that queer Jewish stories are worth telling, and that LGBTQIA Jews have existed as long as there have been Jews. Seeing Jewish lesbians on stage, singing in Yiddish, clinging to sifrei Torah and standing under a chuppah is healing,” Katz said. “Representation of LGBTQIA Jews has and continues to transform our Jewish community and help our straight and cisgender families and friends vision, understand and participate in this joyful reality that has always been here.”
“Hillel Night” at Center Stage will bring students together from area Hillels. Lisa Bodziner, executive director of Towson University Hillel, said the group is always on the lookout for theater of interest to Jewish students and alumni.
“We thought, coming into Purim, although the show does not specifically talk about Purim, it does question identity and tells in some degree a story of being hidden and revealed,” Bodziner said. “So, for all of those reasons we wanted to encourage students. We’re always looking for opportunities to get our students to go out and do something together.”
“We will gather quietly in the dark to watch people tell a story, and experience the story through them, and we will be transformed by it.” — Actress Susan Rome
She said the message in “Indecent” of acceptance of same-sex relationships is an important one for the Towson Hillel and its student members.
“We have a pride flag hanging in our Hillel house, and it’s certainly one of the missions that [university president] Dr. Kim Schatzel is laying out, that tolerance, acceptance, openness is just crucial in this day and age. And we feel that way about open and honest relationships and support,” she said. “We support all students’ journeys at Hillel. We’re a Jewish organization and we’ll always be a Jewish organization, but being able to support any student with any identity is of the utmost importance to us.”
Bodziner anticipates that “Indecent” will be a powerful play that will get students to think about their own identities.
“Even students that discover they might not be identified as Jewish, or described as Jewish to some sects or denominations,” she said. “There are just so many nuances to identity in this day and age and it is complicated.”
For Rosen, beyond the identity issues presented in the play, the social and political fabric of Jewish life in the early 20th century depicted in Yiddish theater is timeless and universal.
“What I love about this play is that it brings all of that back into three- dimensional life. And we remember that they were revolutionaries, they were socialists, they were the best and brightest in the world and they were funny, and because they spoke in a strange language, they were discredited, not taken seriously,” he said. “Think of all of the brilliant, intellectual, achievements of people who don’t ‘speak English so good’ that we bar from entering in to intellectual centers because they don’t speak the same language that we speak. And that was as true then as it is now.
“That’s the mark of important and really good art — that it has renewed relevance as time goes on, in the way that Shakespeare plays go in and out of fashion based on what’s going on politically,” he added. “There’s somethings about the greats — they stay relevant because they are relevant. And because they are human.”
For more information, visit centerstage.org.