By ANNE SIEGEL
MILWAUKEE, WI – The Tony-nominated play Indecent, written by noted playwright Paula Vogel, comes vividly to life in this part of the Midwest. Thankfully, Milwaukee has a perfect space for it: the Cabot Theatre, a recreation of Europe’s old-style “jewel box” theaters. Both grand and gloriously decorated, the theater was created by a local philanthropist for Skylight Music Theatre and Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.
It is the latter troupe that is offering a spine-tingling and gorgeously presented version of this play – a not-to-be-missed addition to the spring theatrical season.
Under the surefire direction of Chamber Artistic Director Brent Hazelton, a dream cast whisks the audience away to a different time and place. Indecent begins in 1906, when a young, Jewish, short story writer, Sholem Asch, writes a controversial play in his Poland hometown. The play, God of Vengeance, features a love scene between two women. Of course, the play is about much more than this love match. But the potent scene between two young women, who declare their feelings one night while they play together in the rain, is the one that audiences remember most. It’s also the scene that caused “Vengeance” to be closed down by police (on obscenity charges) when it debuted on Broadway in the 1920s.
Vogel’s First Encounter with this Historic Work
Vogel first heard of God of Vengeance and its odd history while studying theater at Cornell University. She later teamed up with co-creator Rebecca Taichman, who wrote about the play for her Yale dissertation.
It would take a dissertation-long review to comment on all the themes and subtext that permeate Indecent. However, it’s safe to say that audiences will never forget the experience of seeing Indecent. Every aspect of the play is perfectly “tuned” to be in synch with each other, from the actors to the set to the lighting to the sound to the musicians.
An onstage, three-piece klezmer band is never far from the action, regardless of where a scene takes place. In fact, the opening moments of Indecent seem to borrow a few notes from the opening of another, more well-known Jewish show, Fiddler on the Roof. How can one forget the musical’s lone fiddler who plays such a soulful tune?
Also like Fiddler, Indecent has a narrator. In this case, it’s accomplished Wisconsin actor James Ridge. In Indecent, Ridge plays Lemml, the Stage Manager. Lemml is one of the few characters whose journey is chronicled throughout the performance. Of all the characters, he’s perhaps the one who makes the greatest changes, whether physically, emotionally, geographically or culturally.
Lemml is first described as a “country bumpkin” who accompanies his more-sophisticated relative to a play reading. Before the reading begins, Lemml admits that it will be the first time he has encountered a play. Sholem Asch (Josh Krause, who is incandescent in his best role so far) nervously hands out copies of his play and guides the readers through it.
Afterwards, some of the more “learned” members of the literary circle find little to admire in God of Vengeance. They voice strong objections to the material, saying it will further flame antisemitism. But Lemml’s reaction is the exact opposite. He calls the play “a masterpiece.” Asch gains courage from Lemml’s reaction and vows to produce the play.
Soon afterwards, productions of God of Vengeance are successfully mounted all over Europe. It becomes a sensation. Even years later, when Hitler’s forces create the Warsaw Ghetto to house Jews prior to deportation to concentration camps, God of Vengeance travels with them. Lemml and a small cast are able to stage scenes from the play in various ghetto attics and basements. It brings a moment of mental escape to the Jews who suffer in horrific circumstances.
In Paula Vogel’s play-within-a-play, some scenes from God of Vengeance are replayed over and over. Yet Indecent maintains its chronological timeline. It takes the audience from 1906 through World War II and into the 1950s. Nearly a dozen actors morph seamlessly into numerous characters throughout the play. These transitions are aided tremendously by Madelyn Yee’s set, a warehouse full of period costumes by Kim Instenes, Noele Stollmack’s dramatic lighting effects, choreography by Dani Kuepper and music direction by Christie Chiles Twillie.
Milwaukee Opening Delayed for Two Years
Milwaukee Chamber Theatre originally intended to stage Indecent in 2020, but those plans were derailed due to the pandemic. One can only imagine how grateful the company members must feel at getting the show off the ground in 2022.
If anything, the play seems even more relevant now than it would have been during pre-pandemic days.
Indecent’s cast marks a wealth of Wisconsin-based talent, from actors who have played on many stages during their long careers. The two female actors who fall in love in God of Vengeance are represented by noted Milwaukee actors Rachael Zientek and Elyse Edelman. Zientek, the younger of the two, also appears as Sholem Asch’s wife. It’s clear that the wife’s encouragement is a key component in fueling the playwright’s plays, books and other projects.
On the other side of the coin, Milwaukee favorites James Pickering and Angela Iannone deserve a shout-out for representing a variety of “older” characters (just as Josh Krause and Rachael Zientek are assigned to all of the “younger” parts.)
Setting the Play in a Specific Point in Time
Indecent occasionally steps away from the action to provide interludes that mark the play in its time period. For instance, Zientek and Edelman sing a lovely duet to 1937’s “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön,” a Yiddish song that was instantly made famous when released by the American-based Andrews Sisters.
This mixed-language song is an ideal choice for a number of reasons. For one, it’s a tune that older audiences will no doubt remember from the early 1940s.
Watching Indecent may sound like a complicated experience, and in some ways it is. But make no mistake; the talented cast confidently guides audiences through each step of the process. And although the Holocaust is almost a character itself in this play, there’s also plenty of joy and optimism to savor. For instance, one discovers how relationships between family members, friends and countrymen can keep people from falling apart. There’s an admirable resiliency in these characters, even if some of them feel they are not welcome anywhere in the world – not in Hitler’s Europe, and not even in America, supposedly the “home of the free.”
Indecent by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre played March 11-27 in the Cabot Theatre, located at the Broadway Theatre Center, 158 N. Broadway in Milwaukee. Patrons were required to show a vaccination card or a recent, negative Covid-19 test. Patrons were required to wear masks indoors. For more information, contact milwaukeechambertheatre.org.