ASHLAND — The changing mores of what is and isn’t acceptable is part of the story focus in “Indecent,” a play about the real-life drama created by a controversially “scandalous” play when it was staged in Broadway in 1932.
“Indecent,” which is among the mid-season additions at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, is actually a play within a play. Written by Paula Vogel and directed by Shauna Cooper, “Indecent” reprises the controversy created by the “God of Vengeance” by Sholem Asch, a Yiddish drama about an unconventional love affair, was shown on Broadway in 1923.
The story involves a Polish brothel owner who faces a personal crisis when his daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes. It’s a tender love story, but one that created in an abundance of drama and turmoil when it moved from theaters in Europe, where it debuted in 1907 and played in many countries, to Broadway.
In Europe, Asch was appreciated as an important emerging Yiddish voice. But, as the play tells, there was concern by conservative Jews because “Vengeance” depicted things they regarded as indecent: a Jewish brothel owner who profited from selling sin, and a tender love affair between two women. Some also feared the play would feed anti-Semitism.
There was little concern when the play opened in smaller venues, but once it moved to Broadway, a Rabbi filed an obscenity complaint, which resulted in the cast and company being arrested in mid-performance and charged with indecency.
Vogel follows the play’s journey from its beginnings in Poland to Broadway and beyond, or, as the program notes, “everywhere in between.” Performed in a single act, Cooper moves the play briskly, using music to set the mood and, importantly, overhead projections to translate segments of scenes spoken and songs sung in Yiddish. A musical, “Indecent” uses music, including an accordion, clarinets and a violin, and songs — some in English, others in Yiddish and German, that enhance the beautifully produced play. Likewise, the acting is strong with a cast of seven performing multiple roles.
“Indecent” is an ambitious play, variously centering on a sometimes overwhelming series of themes — the treatment of immigrants, attitudes to lesbianism, ethnicity, morality, cultural diversity, concepts of “love,” anti-Semitism, and Jewish history. It’s not told in linear fashion, but instead moves through time as it also channels the a story of a man transformed from an exuberant youth to an embittered old man. It’s a play about many things, including forgotten or, more accurately, unknown history. “Indecent” is a play that is sad, strange and wonderful, but also a powerful, emotional drama with laughter and tears.