By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
The story of God of Vengeance (Got fun Nekome), the three-act drama in Yiddish by Sholem Asch, was famously recounted in 2017 with Paula Vogel’s Indecent. That remarkable Tony Award-winning work spoke about the playwright, the success of his work, its controversial 1923 Broadway run that was shut down due to alleged immorality and its ill-fated cast.
Directed by Bruce Bierman, the Yiddish Theatre Ensemble’s (YTE) cast of 17 multicultural and multigenerational LGBTQ actors recently performed Asch’s morality play God of Vengeance virtually in a translation by Caraid O’Brien that contained some Yiddish and was largely faithful to the original work’s conceit. Bierman had been involved as the dance dramaturge in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Indecent several years ago.
God of Vengeance was originally planned as a stage work to be presented in September of 2020 before the worldwide theatre shutdown occurred. It was produced by Laura Sheppard with major funding from KlezCalifornia.
YTE updated the virtual work, resetting it from a nondescript Russian town at the turn of the 20th century to the Great Depression of New York’s Lower East Side in 1932. This reimagined version of the 115-year-old work was safely filmed over Zoom by individual cast members with editing and digital backgrounds rendered by Jeremy Knight. Knight based the backgrounds on photographs he culled from New York’s Tenement Museum. The result greatly enhanced the scenes and gave an overall impression that the actors were in the same space when, in fact, they were digitally manipulated.
There were some scenes – however they tried – where the virtual aspect fell far short of delivering the true poetry of the work and the intention of its characters. This was most evident in the famous “rain” scene in Act II, a subplot of the play which involves the first lesbian kiss on a modern stage and the one that led to its charges of obscenity in the U.S.
But before the subplot could be addressed, there was the greater question of the arc of the main plot, that of Yankl (Roni Arpel), a determined man who appeared in Act I with his observant wife Soreh (Jill Eickmann), both wearing simple head coverings indicating them to be a pious Jewish couple. Living in an upstairs apartment, Yankl is delighted by the sudden appearance of the object of his adoration, his daughter Rivkeleh (Elena Faverio).
Rivkeleh had become of marriageable age and in order to find a proper suitor for his daughter, Yankl had commissioned that a Torah, a sacred scroll, be written in her honor. This would become a symbol that his family had taken a proper, respectable place in his Jewish community. What became evident as the play unfolded was that his respectability was but a sham, that it had been erected upon a ricketedy house of cards placed atop a fragile foundation of hypocrisy.
Yankl’s riches had been achieved on the backs and from the backsides of the prostitutes he employed on the ground floor of his building. Even his wife was revealed to be a former prostitute who had risen up through the ranks to help him assume a false air of respectability. Operated by Yankl, the brothel was the source for that very same ill-gotten gain which he intended to use to help him realize a dowry for his beloved Rivkele, the source of his constant joy.
Rivkeleh, who would seem to be an ideal candidate for a wife, is completely unknown to men, a virgin. Her parents have shielded her from the sordid matters going on beneath them, but she finds herself attracted to Mankeh (Zissel Piazza), one of the whores.
When Asch wrote God of Vengeance, he did so against the backdrop of Eastern Europe. It is important to remember there were no modern concepts of women’s liberation or female equality. Men were the masters of their destiny and women were often little more than non-voting attractive window dressing. Jewish rabbinic law established normalcy for relationships to be solely between a man and a woman. Homosexual relations between men were banned outright due to specific passages found in the Torah. But, when it came to female same attractiveness, there was little written.
Asch struck a nerve because there was a double standard when it came to women. Women could not openly carry on relationships with each other, and rabbinic authorities held that women who had had sexual contact with other women were still considered to be virgins and, therefore, able to marry priests. It was a concept the rabbis termed as mesolelot or tribadism, where homoerotic women would stimulate each other’s genitalia. Since there was no seed spilled as in heterosexual congress, rabbis were quick to dismiss mesolelot as incidental and of no real account.
There is no need to be an apologist here since the now acceptable terms of lesbian and lesbianism – meaning “from the Isle of Lesbos” – had only been used sparingly until the 20th century and oftentimes were exchanged with sapphist and sapphism, which paid honor to the poetess Sappho, one of the Greek island’s most famous citizens. These terms were often used interchangeably with tribadism.
While the main focus is on Yankl and Soreh’s attempt to become acceptable and respectable, the more interesting aspect of God of Vengeance is the innocent exploration of Rivkeleh’s becoming aware of her own sexuality and her attraction to Mankeh.
YTE attempted to bring a manner of acceptance to the relationship between Rivkeleh and Mankeh, imbuing it with sensibility and a modern approach. It is doubtful such artistic choices would have been considered during Asch’s time, but it was clearly the intent of its producers that the characters’ feelings be expressed and that the video depict the two as a couple in a state of blissful love.
Of course, when viewed through a modern lens, this morality tale is filled with instance after instance of the worst kind of stereotypes of Jews as godless, money grubbing reprobates eking out an existence that is debased and lecherous. If the women are all whores, then it is implied Yankl’s riches are coming to him because of a steady stream of male customers. In Asch’s mind, the men who are presumed to be largely from the Jewish community are also guilty of the hypocrisy of living a pious life, but secretly giving in to their lusty and lascivious impulses.
The ensemble’s work was exemplary insofar as they all had to individually film their lines without the luxury of personal interaction due to the pandemic. Arpel, Eickmann, Faverio and Piazza led a cast of seasoned performers who all did creditable jobs to bring characters reminiscent of the early 20th century into the modern era a century later. Simon Winheld played Shlomo, a despicable pimp and opportunist, who attempted to deprive Yankl of his livelihood and progeny. His Third Act scene with Eickmann as a distraught, but manipulative Soreh gave greater depth and appreciation to their otherwise shallow characters.
All in all, this was a rather pleasing presentation and one that is worthy of seeing again should it be rebroadcast. For those who were familiar with Indecent, this production gives more than ample background as to why the play created such a fervor at its Broadway premiere. When examined through a modern lens, much of its depiction of same-sex sexual awakening seems tame and almost innocuous. We must remember, however, that the true God of Vengeance is the one who visits those who do not learn from the errors of the past.
God of Vengeance (100 minutes) from Yiddish Theatre Ensemble was livestreamed from March 20-23 over Vimeo. Directed by Bruce Bierman, it was produced by Laura Sheppard with major funding from KlezCalifornia. It will be rebroadcast in May.