In 1907 Sholem Asch wrote a play in Yiddish, “God of Vengeance,” that changed his life and the world of theater. Ignoring the advice to burn the play and forget it, he sees his personal project performed across Europe to great acclaim. Only when the drama crosses the pond to America does it incite controversy from Jews and others who view it as anti-Semitic.
Good theater is supposed to inspire conversation and maybe even a little controversy. Playwrights like audiences to leave their seats with questions and comments, hopefully eager to discuss the play’s finer points or disturbing elements. Sometimes one leaves humming a title song or buzzing with excitement. One never knows and that’s half the fun of venturing into the theatrical unknown.
For Paula Vogel’s play within a play “Indecent,” we are invited into the lives of Sholom Asch and his wife Matl, snugly ensconced at the Playhouse on Park in West Hartford, until Sunday, February 26. While a violinist, folk dance, song and a father who is questioning his faith all figure prominently and the old world flavor and charm of the shtetl are clearly evident, this is not your grandfather’s “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“Indecent” lets us be privy to that journey and those complications as an intrepid troupe of performers dedicates itself to bringing this controversial tale to the public. While it was cheered in places like Berlin, Rome and ST. Petersburg, this “daring play” confronting “contemporary moral values” led to the entire cast being arrested on obscenity charges when it premiered on Broadway in 1923.
“The God of Vengeance” deals with a devoted Jew who loves the Torah but also runs a brothel in the basement of his home. His virginal daughter Rifkele falls in love with a female prostitute Manke, a forbidden relationship that causes Papa to denounce both her and his religion. Kelly O’
Donnell directs this production with skill, with Alexander Sovronsky providing lively musical direction and Katie Stevinson-Nollet adding lyrical choreography.
A talented troupe of eleven actors and musicians -Dan Zimberg as Lemml the stage manager, Noa Graham, Bart Shatto, Kirsten Peacock, Helen Laser, Dan Krackhardt, Alexander Sovronsky, Michelle Lemon, Jack Theiling, Ben McLaughlin and Sydney Weiser – bring this involving story to fervent life with words, movement, playing violin, accordion and clarinet in an almost two hour production without intermission. For tickets ($42.50-55), call Playhouse on Park, 244 Park Road, West Hartford at 860-523-5900, ext.10 or online at https://www.playhouseonpark.org. Performances are Tuesday at 2 p.m., Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m., followed by a talkback.
It is interesting to note that January 27 was International Holocaust Remembrance Day to honor the memory of the six million Jews killed by the Nazis in World War II. In 2023 a Florida high school was forced to cancel its production of “Indecent” due to sexual content, where two actresses kiss on stage. Today on Broadway audiences are flocking to see “Leopoldstadt” by Tom Stoppard about a Jewish family striving to survive in times of peril over a span of fifty years, called the Best Theater of 2022.
Immerse yourself in this extraordinary theatrical production that wrestles with sin and with God, that bears witness to souls rising out of the ashes until they are returned dust to dust, and celebrates a pure love, in the rain, of one young woman for another. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, this play is transfused with light and joy.