Sunday, February 25, 2018

Indecent Incites the Humanity in Us All

What is the responsibility of great art? 

Photo by Dan Norman

Is it to the artist? The audience? The culture it portrays? The abstract idea of art itself? 

This is an impossible question to answer; every person will approach it from a different lived perspective, and every person will find a new voice to add to this conversation. The place of art has been debated for centuries and will continue to be - and that's as it should be. A healthy process of self-evaluation is important to any society that deigns to present a semblance of growth or progress or democracy to its public, and introspection can uproot all sorts of deep feelings that point the way forward to a better tomorrow - if properly examined, of course. 

Photo by Dan Norman

It's interesting then to consider Indecent, which currently graces the Guthrie stage in its first off-Broadway production after quite the cultural uproar. You can read better pieces for context about the controversy by clicking here, here, and here, but suffice it to say - Indecent made waves upon appearing last year and hasn't shied away from stirring the cultural pot ever since. 

A play about a play, Indecent tells the story of the writing, production, and subsequent silencing of The God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch, a script that was undoubtedly and tragically ahead of its time. The God of Vengeance was an attempt to write a story about Jews (written and performed in Yiddish, no less) that told a true story about their lived experiences that was more honest than the biblical hero tropes that were pervasive at the time. What resulted was a sensational story that included a Jewish-owned brothel, a Torah purchased through the fruits of the prostitution there, and most importantly a poignant, honest love story between two women that shattered all of the patriarchal tropes and religious dictates surrounding their romance. 

Photo by Dan Norman

What resulted, as one might predict, was quite the uproar. The Jewish community was understandably concerned in publicizing a narrative that might provide pervasive Antisemitism with a virile foothold; society at large wasn't the most pleased with the idea of a sympathetic lesbian relationship; and America in particular was horrified at the idea of a play showing religion with capitalistic roots (oh, the irony). Indecent is about all of that, and then some. This includes the personal lives of those involved in creating the production, particularly the stage manager Lemml, whose undying passion for the haunted script leads him to flee America at exactly the wrong time, returning to his native Poland in the late 1930s just as the Jewish ghettos are formed by the Nazis. The show ends with a performance of The God of Vengeance within the ghetto itself, a horrifically eloquent commentary amidst the ultimate test of human resilience in the face of unimaginable evil. 

An undeniable fact is that this production is beautifully produced. A taught cast of six actors and three musicians play over 40 characters, a seamless feat that keeps this play moving quickly at a full pace of 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. There are a number of great actors here, including the always delightful Sally Wingert with some much-needed comedic zingers, a fabulous Miriam Schwartz in the best performance I've ever seen her in, and the new-to-me Gisela Chípe with some thoroughly gorgeous acting. The clear standout, however, is Ben Cherry, who is absolutely magnificent as Lemml. Cherry joins the Minneapolis cast from the Broadway production and he is an absolute revelation; he was the grounding force in this show for me, and truly revealed the beating heart of what author Paula Vogel was trying to reveal. 

Photo by Dan Norman

I want to make a special shout-out to the three musicians onstage, who not only acted well but provided an unbelievably gorgeous soundtrack throughout the show and entirely from memory. Accordionist Spencer Chandler; violinist Lisa Gutkin; and especially the bravado clarinetist Pat O'Keefe: bravo for a spectacular musical performance that was the most important emotional element of this show. I was so impressed with your work and Indecent just wouldn't be what it is without it. Thank you for your efforts. 

The overall tightly-drawn production is due to the efforts of director Wendy Goldberg, who has infused every element of care possible into her tending of this story. The set, a stage within a stage designed by Arnulfo Maldonado, bears the dark foreboding of the script itself. The costumes by Anne Kennedy are period-perfect and lush despite their threadbare nature, and there are several moments (such as the solemn application of gold Jewish stars in the Polish ghetto) that need no further introduction thanks to her care. Josh Epstein provides several striking lighting moments and has synchronized with sound designer Kate Marvin to make this an encompassing experience. 

Photo by Dan Norman

I've struggled to define my feelings about this show for several reasons. One: I feel that it was not written for me; this is not a bad thing whatsoever, but I just think I missed some of the vital nuance contained here. I am not Jewish, and although I have studied much of this historical context at varying stages and think I know a lot, I don't feel equipped or expert enough in the details to provide a thorough historical understanding. The other is that I struggle with this question of the place of art. Indecent asks a host of unanswerable questions of its audience (and that's probably the point), but ultimately: what is the responsibility of great art? I normally would agree with Sholem Asch's original point presented via his character, that it is always vital and necessary to tell the most human stories we can so that we may all understand and respect one another better. But it is also true that the world seems to insist with great success that we un-engage ourselves from such critical thinking and instead seize upon damaging tropes as an excuse to destroy one another. The context Indecent is painted within is the starkest you can imagine for this question to play out, and the result of the plot is one that leaves me with an impossible choice. I emotionally feel Sholem Asch is wrong, but I most certainly cannot say this with any sort of factual basis or truth: the path he chose is not the one I prefer in my fiction, but it is understandable, and there are no easy answers to find in this complex drama. 

As I've sifted through my feelings, Viktor Frankl's magnificent Man's Search for Meaning continues to come to mind. Another great piece of art about the most reported-upon genocide in history, Man's Search for Meaning can shine a light and truth into any darkness, an act which I think Indecent was genuinely trying to embody. I am left only with Frankl's words, which say: 

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

Sholem Asch chose the attitude he needed to survive and in that moment turned his back on his art and his artistic family. Was he wrong? Do we still need The God of Vengeance? Do we need Indecent? I would say yes to all; but it's not my story to tell. For a challenging, beautifully produced, female-authored, female-directed, modern play, don't miss Indecent at the Guthrie, which plays through March 24. For more information and to buy tickets, click on this link