Victory Gardens Theater’s Chicago premiere of Paula Vogel’s Tony nominated INDECENT weaves a beautiful narrative about the transcendence of art and human resilience. Director Gary Griffin’s staging feels both grandiose and intimate at the same time; the play’s action spans a time period from 1906-1950 and travels across continents, but the vignettes contained in Vogel’s story are rife with genuine, powerful human emotion. INDECENT was inspired by the true story of the 1923 Broadway debut of Jewish playwright Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, which had an illicit lesbian romance as one of its main plot points. Vogel’s story charts God of Vengeance’s journey from the moment Asch first presents the script to his wife through to its first reading and multiple staged productions.
In covering such large swaths of the play’s history, Vogel naturally allows INDECENT to become an exploration of identity and what it means to take risks in the name of creating art. And though Vogel takes INDECENT to sweeping and deeply emotional places, these themes feel earned. Griffin’s elegant staging allows the audience to fully embrace each moment, letting the unique structure and each “blink in time” in Vogel’s play become the centerpiece. Cleverly Vogel begins the action by introducing us to a troupe of actors, who each embody several roles throughout the play. This framing device allows us to buy into the constantly shifting time periods and locations. The design elements also let audiences track these changes. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s scenic design gives the actors an open space on which to play, and Mara Blumenfeld’s costume designs beautifully represent the various time periods on display. Stephen Mazurek’s projection designs are appropriately modest and make clear the many languages spoken throughout the play. Altogether the design elements convey a sense of fluidity in time and space that INDECENT requires to be successful.
Of course, Vogel’s play becomes all the more beautiful in the hands of Griffin’s lovely ensemble. As The Stage Manager: Lemml (the only character that does not double in the play), Benjamin Magnuson becomes the audience’s surrogate guide through the world of INDECENT. Magnuson finds a thoughtful balance between grounded, humorous, and also vulnerable. Noah LaPook essays The Ingenue: Avram and notably has an effective turn as the young Sholem Asch. In LaPook’s performance, we see the fire and drive within Asch as he strives to have his play put before the world. Kiah Stern is equally lovely as The Ingenue: Chana. She brings a spirited energy to each of the parts she portrays. She is well-matched by Catherine LeFrere as The Middle: Halena. Stern and LeFrere play alongside one another as the two lovers in Asch’s play, and their tenderness towards one another feels deeply honest. David Darlow and Cindy Gold round out the cast as The Elders, alongside Andrew White as The Middle: Mendel. Together, all of these actors clearly deeply trust one another and come together in many moving choral moments.
Though INDECENT is not a musical, music is very much an integral part of the story. The actors are also accompanied by two musicians, Matt Deitchman and Elleon Dobias. Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva’s original music derives from a wide range of styles representing traditional Jewish culture as well as the sounds of America as the play moves forward in time. The use of music enhances Vogel’s exploration of the immigrant experience within the play, as the score itself becomes a veritable melting pot.
As performed at Victory Gardens, INDECENT manages to evoke sadness and yet also uplift. Even as the play’s characters face discrimination and devastation because of who they are, they refuse to give up their art and their identities in order to defend what they love. The fact that Vogel sends this message in such a specific and unique way makes INDECENT all the more compelling. This play has a story all its own and yet there is so much universality within it.
INDECENT plays through November 4 at Victory Gardens Theater. Tickets are $15-$60. Visit VictoryGardensTheater.org.
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Originally posted on BroadwayWorld.com