Paula Vogel’s Indecent, which opens August 30 in a regional premiere at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, arrives with a challenging history. It's based on Polish writer Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, a 1906 play about a Jewish brothel keeper determined to purify his soul by having a Torah inscribed, and also by finding a respectable marriage for his beloved seventeen-year-old daughter, Rifkele. She, however, loves Manke, one of the prostitutes. God of Vengeance toured successfully in Europe, but when it opened on Broadway in 1923, a furor ensued — in part because of the lesbian affair, in part because, in a time of growing anti-Semitism and vicious anti-immigrant sentiment, members of the Jewish community feared the impact of Jews being portrayed on stage as sleazy and corrupt. During the course of the run, the producer and cast members were indicted for indecency.
Indecent brings the original troupe of actors back from the dead, to recount these events and also to move Asch’s story to the Lodz ghetto, where the Nazis have forbidden any kind of artistic or theatrical activity and the love scene between Rifkele and Manke is performed in an attic.
“The main emphasis is on the relationship between Rifkele and one of Yekel’s prostitutes, Manke,” says Indecent director Nancy Keystone. “In particular, Vogel changes the dynamics in that relationship, so that Rifkele is the instigator/aggressor and has more agency than the character does in Asch’s play. The ‘rain scene’ between the two girls (in which they meet at night like Romeo and Juliet to caress in the May rain) is the climax, as well as the main point of conflict in Indecent.”
Vogel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for 1998's How I Learned to Drive, also brings to the fore the father’s ever-simmering rage and the dangers of domestic violence.
“The play explores the lesbian relationship in the context of a Yiddish play of that era, the male playwright who created it, the response it provoked and the contemporary resonance,” Keystone notes. And according to the center’s website, “Evoking the Jewish experience through traditional songs and dancing, this stirring production will leave you with a deeper appreciation for the art and experiences we often take for granted.”
Given this description, I wondered if the actors are Jewish and, if so, whether they discussed their own Jewish experience and Jewish culture in general during the rehearsal period. But when I asked about this, I got no direct answer, only an assurance that the actors had worked with the dramaturg and a Yiddish consultant.
This can be a sensitive issue. The question of whether Jewish roles should be given only to Jewish actors recently surfaced in London, when a public argument erupted over the casting of a musical called Falsettos, which was arriving from New York after a successful run on Broadway. Set in the 1970s, Falsettos is about a Jewish family dealing with the AIDs crisis. Noting that the director is not Jewish and there’s not a single Jew in the cast, over twenty Jewish actors and playwrights wrote a letter accusing the producers of “appropriation and erasure of a culture and religion increasingly facing a crisis.”
As a secular Jew, I have mixed — and perhaps not entirely rational — feelings about all this. If they could avoid it, no one these days would cast a white actor in a role written as black, Latinx or Asian, use an able-bodied person to play someone disabled, or substitute cisgender for transgender. In part, this is because doing so would rob performers who often have trouble finding work. But it’s also because of the richness and depth that personal knowledge adds to artistic expression.
By and large, Jewish actors don’t have more difficulty finding work than non-Jewish ones. But watching one production of The Merchant of Venice, I simply couldn't accept its Shylock. Not because he didn’t “look Jewish” — there’s no one Jewish look, nor could I put a finger on what was wrong with his mannerisms, speech or posture. But I was haunted by the sense that this performance simply wasn’t right. Yet I have seen several entirely satisfactory productions in which non-Jewish actors played Jewish roles: a fine Fiddler on the Roof at BDT Stage, a convincing Bad Jews at the Edge Theater in which not one of the cast members was actually Jewish. Still, there’s something about God of Vengeance and Indecent that makes the question of Jewishness feel particularly urgent: that shining, redemptive copy of the Torah, the sense of Jews as outsiders and perpetual strangers.
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From her interviews, Vogel’s own Judaism seems expansive, wise and compassionate. “This is a play in 1906 that said we are all lesbian and we are all Jews,” she says of God of Vengeance in a Playbill article. “This is a time for us to come together. And not only enjoy the entertainment and the uplift of theater, but to remind ourselves that theater must be the dog that bites the hand that feeds us. Because theater tells the truth, and we need the truth right now.”
And God of Vengeance “documents a point in America when we turned our immigration laws against Jews and Italians. Today, it’s Muslims, but it’s the same toxin in our country, " she told Jewish Journal.
“I think Americans have to say — that right now, we are all Muslim.”
Indecent, presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company August 30 through October 6 at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. For more information, call 303-893-4100 or go to denvercenter.org.