Times of division have upset the proverbial apple cart in modern Western nations time and again since the Industrial and French Revolutions, as social norms, mores, and the designated charting of moral lines of latitude and longitude are drawn, re-drawn, pondered, and sometimes re-interpreted – despite the self-anointed overriding objections of traditionalists and fixed point morality hardliners. Executive and Artistic Segal Centre Director Lisa Rubin became enraptured with one of its most fervent and explosive stage representations more than a century following seminal Yiddish playwright Sholem Asch’s foisting of his vaunted, yet searing God of Vengeance force of (narrative) nature onto curious audiences back in 1906. Rubin’s passion for all things powerful, thought-provoking and essentially made-to-order for a venue such as the Segal Centre led her to follow its off-stage trajectory dramatically refitted into a production about a (an admittedly rather infamous, legendary and yet completely necessary) production penned some five years ago by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel – and developed with stage director Rebecca Taichman – dubbed Indecent, a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the reaction Asch’s work elicited before it was translated and sanitized for Broadway in 1923. And even after that as well. It lost its moxie and fire when spayed and neutered for New York audiences, but the consequences were dire and swift nonetheless: the cast was promptly arrested and successfully prosecuted for its performance of the (allegedly) salacious material.
Much like feeding a school of sharks buckets of bait, offering up an intriguing play with poignant performances and downright delightful music set in Village Anytown, Eastern Europe circa the start of the 20th century (the auditory delights abound, but Indecent is not actually a musical despite the captivating soundtrack to which it’s set), yet centered around a “house of ill repute” (a brothel) run by a Jewish man determined to help carve out a “decent” path outside of the sex trade for his daughter, helped lend vocal pockets of Anti-Semitic sentiment all the ammunition they could ever want. Traditional Jewish groups and other local population segments decried its production as vile and sacrilegious, while more radical Reformist elements thought it a beautiful and important production. Have we mentioned that the brothel owner’s daughter falls for one of the prostitutes in her father’s employ and they wind up sharing the first onstage kiss between two women ever seen on Broadway? By today’s generally secular standards, a proverbial tempest in a teapot perhaps, but as one rolls backward through the retroactive rigidity of social history, it was – to some – akin to spray-painting anarchist graffiti on the walls around the Vatican. And did we mention that a sacred, scribal copy of the Torah, an instrument procured to help the brothel owner’s daughter Rifkele maintain her purity in life, is eventually not treated as the precious holder of divine knowledge and wisdom it is by Yekel, her soon-to-be outraged father?
Yet through all the tumult shines the real purity, a wonderful love story between two souls from very different backgrounds who find one another in the most unlikely of settings. It may have been edited out of the Broadway interpretation of God of Vengeance, but it fully blossoms in Indecent, as Rubin meticulously but vociferously brings out the increasingly intimate dynamic between Rifkele and Manke, a prostitute in Rifkele’s father’s brothel.
There are 47 characters in this production that bob and weave through time and the historical eddies and currents – as well as the reactions to and reception of – Asch’s work and these almost four dozen individuals are amazingly interpreted by ten multidimensional actors in dizzying, dazzling and downright masterful fashion. Montreal actor Ryan Bommarito especially stands out as a ringleader – both literally AND figuratively – taking on the role of stage manager Lemml, but they really all do shine in a most challenging array of scenarios and personages. The jaw-dropping production talents (especially in lightof what’s involved) of set designer Brian Dudkiewicz, costume designer Louise Bourret, lighting designer Claude Accolas, the rhythmic paradise of the visual and auditory created by musical director Nick Burgess and choreographer Ray Hogg help immeasurably in rounding out this simply unforgettable theatrical experience about … well, the theatrical.
The performances are nothing short of bombastic and memorable; the music is nourishing and simply wonderful to the melodic ear. The story is of course completely riveting, and its message amazingly timely and relevant. It could very well actually be considered indecent to miss this amazing piece of work that Rubin and her crew have so graciously brought to eager Segal Centre audiences from now until May 19th.
Visit segalcentre.org for more information or call the box office at (514) 739-7944 .