It is hard to imagine Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” set to music. The tale of Jewish playwright Sholem Asch’s controversial Broadway debut, “God of Vengeance” and the illicit lesbian love affair contained within is so fraught with angst that crowding the play with music is risky.
But Arden Theatre’s score of incidental klezmer music celebrates Yiddish culture and adds depth to the already astounding work.
“Indecent” director Rebecca Wright speaks to PGN about the transcendent theatrical work, beginning with her thoughts on Pulitzer Prize winner and out lesbian, Paula Vogel.
PGN: What is your overall take on Vogel? What makes “Indecent” incandescent and different from the pack?
RW: She’s definitely influenced a generation of American playwrights as a teacher. I appreciate how dedicated she is to creating scripts that invite practitioners into the process. Her famous stage direction “She turns into an almond” from “Melancholy Play” is a prime example of this: How do you do that on stage? Who knows! You’re invited, as the director, actor, team of people making the production, to figure it out. “How I Learned to Drive” and “Baltimore Waltz” were very important plays to me when I was young. And so it’s been lovely to finally get to work on one of her plays — to spend time puzzling it out with an ensemble and a design team. “Indecent” very much reads to me like the record of somebody’s devising process, and I love scripts like this. You can tell that a group of people were figuring stuff out in the room and your job is to read between the lines and get a sense of what prompts they were giving themselves, so you can connect with the spirit of the impulses that led to the particular choices.
PGN: How did you internalize all of that?
RW: I connect personally with the subject matter — as a theater practitioner, as a Jewish person descended from Eastern European Jewish immigrants and as a woman.
PGN: Vogel has been quoted saying that Sholem Asch’s play “God of Vengeance” positioned “that Jews are no different than Catholics or Buddhists or people of any religion, in terms of having people in the tribe who may sell religion for a profit, or who are hypocrites.” How do you play with this notion?
RW: Oh, this is so interesting. I haven’t read this quote from her, though she does put this idea in the mouth of Eugene O’Neill in the play, who makes a brief cameo. I think because this play so devotedly depicts Jewish characters who are artists, writers, scholars — the literati, the intelligentsia, the bohemians of a forgotten age — it invites us to consider Jewish heritage more broadly than just the dominant givens of religious practices, the more recent history of World War II, and the state of Israel. To some, these characters might seem very unusual or unexpected. But most of the people we meet in the play are Jewish, and so I think it asks us to consider the relationship between religion and identity, the nature of religion in shaping identity and culture, the tricky business of articulating religious ethnicity and so forth. Jewishness in the play has much to do with immigration and the language of Yiddish, and I think the themes of immigration and cultural erasure are very pertinent to our contemporary political moment. In the end, it is these enduring themes — and the mourning of a lost language, and therefore a lost cannon — that animate the bones of the play.
PGN: How does the play’s lesbian storyline fuel the action of “Indecent” for you and your crew?
RW: It’s amazing and mind-boggling and beautiful that someone wrote a play featuring a lesbian love story in 1906. It’s impossible to work on “Indecent” without being moved and floored by “God of Vengeance.” We read through it out loud on the first day of rehearsal and were all kind of blown away at how gripping and provocative it still is. The characters are so complex. The questions are so deep, and the love-story storyline is so tenderly crafted. I think because so much of queer history has been subaltern, young queer people are often cut off from it. Like other radical histories, it takes some digging to find. It’s not necessarily going to be part of the dominant narrative, which is a straight, cis, white, male, Christian, Euro-centric narrative. For those of us who want a world where a more polyvocal, multiplicitous history is told, “Indecent” makes a real contribution by amplifying the story of this early 20th-century queer play.
PGN: And what, in your opinion, makes it so contemporary?
RW: It’s an ensemble-cast piece about immigration, censorship, cultural erasure, LGBTQ-plus identity, and the politics of representation. I’d call that a pretty contemporary collection of themes. Moreover, it’s about the enduring transformative power of love and art — a meaningful claim that people can come together and make something powerful and beautiful even in very dark times. n
“Indecent” runs May 22-June 23. For more information and tickets, visit ardentheatre.org.