Review: Austin Playhouse's Indecent

Passionate tribute to a landmark lesbian kiss is a warning from history

(l-r) Sarah Fleming Walker, Michael Ferstenfeld, Huck Huckaby, and Babs George in Austin Playhouse’s Indecent (Photo by Steve Rogers Photography)

In 1923, Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance served up Broadway’s first queer kiss and became a landmark work of lesbian dramatic literature. In 2017, as the centerpiece of Paula Vogel’s Tony Award-winning Indecent, it became something more.

Asch’s largely forgotten three-act masterwork – which at the turn of the 20th century achieved great success on the stages of Europe and in the Yiddish theatre scene of New York City’s Lower East Side – revolves around a Jewish owner of a brothel in Poland. He and his wife are determined to keep their young daughter Rivke virginal, and thus marriageable. But Rivke falls in love with Manke, one of the prostitutes, who returns her affections.

The kiss was never meant to be scandalous; just an eleventh-hour expression of passion between two people. But when an English translation was attempted at Broadway’s Apollo Theatre, local Orthodox rabbis complained that its warts-and-all depiction of Jewish life was fanning the flames of growing antisemitism. The play proved too scandalous and “ethnic” for upscale audiences who embraced newly restrictive immigration laws. The theatre was raided, the show’s producer and 12-member cast were arrested and convicted on charges of obscenity, and the production was shut down.

Vogel’s one-act Indecent – with its threepiece klezmer band and seven actors playing 42 roles – meta-theatrically traces God of Vengeance’s history and that of its original players from their first performance to their last in an attic in occupied Poland during World War II. By doing so, we see how little things have changed in this country in terms of artistic censorship, religious hypocrisy, and homophobia. And with Yiddish being spoken and sung intermittently throughout the production – an endangered language now, due largely to the extermination of over 5 million of its speakers during the Holocaust – we see just how expediently culture can be canceled.

Critics called the Broadway production of Indecent “captivating” and “gorgeous” (Time Out New York), “a heart-stirring … reminder of … the power of art” (New York Daily News), and “superbly realized” with “remarkable power” (The New York Times). The same can be said for Austin Playhouse’s current production under the thoughtful direction of Lara Toner Haddock (stage) and Lyn Koenning (music). Mike Toner’s minimalist scenic design, with its empty raised platform surrounded by assorted props and seated performers, is true to the original production and effectively evokes the time, temperament, and place of the play. All this is enhanced by Mark Novick’s dramatic lighting and Robert S. Fisher’s projected Yiddish/English translations on a curtain hanging behind the performance space.

Great attention to detail can be found in the work of dramaturg Jennifer Sturley, down to the covering of actors’ tattoos, which would have been culturally inappropriate for Jews of that era and a trigger for Jews of a certain age in this one. The same goes for Diana Huckaby’s period-correct costuming and dialect coach Amanda Cooley Davis’ work with actors whose characters employ heavily accented, broken English when conversing with non-Yiddish speakers.

The show’s remarkable ensemble – Michael Ferstenfeld, Kathleen Fletcher, Babs George, Huck Huckaby, AJ Clauss, Sarah Fleming Walker, and Ben Wolfe – add layers of flesh to the individual personalities they are asked to inhabit and become a unified force in capturing the weight and somber undertone that dominate the script. They never lose sight of the painstaking humanity at the heart of each of the roles they bring to life.

Missing from their performances is the sense of joy that also surfaces upon occasion, a reflection of the characters’ powerful connections with each other and their heritage amidst the travesties they experience. Its rarity requires greater attention in the klezmer tunes played by Noel Esquivel Jr. on clarinet, Nathan Daniel Ford on violin, and Chris Humphrey on accordion, and in the execution of Adam Roberts’ exuberant choreography. Only Wolfe, who plays the stage manager, Lemml, in God of Vengeance and serves as the narrator in Indecent, communicates this sentiment. The character is built that way, but Wolfe’s expressive face and physicality do joy justice.

Indecent is a spectacular play given a superb production. It is also a tribute to a landmark lesbian kiss and a testimony to how history seems to be repeating itself.

Austin Playhouse’s Indecent

405 W. 22nd, 512/476-0084
Through May 14
Running time: Approx. 1 hr., 40 mins.

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Indecent, Paula Vogel, Sholem Asch, God of Vengeance, Sarah Fleming Walker, Michael Ferstenfeld, Huck Huckaby, Babs George, Kathleen Fletcher, Ben Wolfe, Austin Playhouse

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