26 February 2018

Music, Allusion, and Repetition in Indecent

“Though this early-20th-century Yiddish play had dazzled Greenwich Village audiences in 1922, the show’s producers worried that it might be too provocative for the less bohemian folk of Midtown; a pivotal love scene between two women was deleted from the script, much to the distress of members of the company. … Yes, that notorious scene that never made it to the main stem, even in the licentious Jazz Age, is fully rendered here — and not just once but in an assortment of fuguelike variations…. The dominant note of this erotic encounter isn’t prurience, though; it’s piety.” —Ben Brantley, The New York Times (18 April 2017)
Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman’s Indecent is a play about a play; but, of course, it’s more than that. Playing at Yale Repertory Theatre before its own (non-contentious) run on Broadway, Indecent takes as its subject the events surrounding the production of Sholem Asch’s Got fun nemoke (God of Vengeance). That play, written in Yiddish when Asch was in his twenties, went on to tour Europe—even after writers in the Jewish community tried to persuade Asch to burn it—before landing in New York in 1922. The attempted Broadway transfer ended with the arrest of the actors and confiscation of scripts. Vogel and Taichman’s work seeks to retell the history of that play using a small company of actors playing many different parts and three musicians trained in the idioms of klezmer music.

One of my first impressions of the overall piece after I had seen it was how powerful it is; or, I suppose, how powerful it’s meant to be; or how powerful its creators wished it to be. Any piece which uses as a plot point the Holocaust certainly runs the risk of being described as powerful, immense, even unfathomable. The stories told in Indecent are told in an innovative way, mostly chronologically, but also disparately, as vignettes with connecting material in between, using projections to fill in gaps and provide translation as needed. I did feel like some of this connecting material was superfluous or distracting to the overall arc of the play; I would have preferred a more-fleshed-out examination of the central themes, but it is possible these connecting bits served to give the piece its own culture and vernacular. Shuffling between at least three languages (English, Yiddish, and German, though there may have been more), it might have been necessary to provide a unifying language for the audience and actors to agree on—the unifying language of music and dance. The most effective material landed when the whole company performed together, because there was a sense of the company working as a whole team, a vital theme in retelling this story.

The music is an important element establishing a sense of the community involved. Klezmer music has a particular feel and pulse, being first and foremost a variety of dance music. The king of klezmer is the clarinet, but a number of other instruments are used traditionally, including violin and accordion. The music in Indecent is not all klezmer, however. The show’s playbill has only one note about the music (aside from copyrights), which is the following:
The song “Wiegala,” heard near the conclusion of Indecent, was written by Ilse Weber, a nurse at the Children’s Hospital at Theresienstadt. She sang this lullaby for the children in the wards. When it came time for the children to be transported to Auschwitz, Ilse Weber volunteered to go with them. It is said she sang this song in line to the chambers.
This might be an indication that every detail of Indecent has been thought of in order to achieve a particularly strong affective response from the audience.

The set and lighting lend an atmosphere of undusted furniture in an attic. A large, low platform covers most of the stage. The finish is dark wood. The furniture is rustic. A mist hangs in the air. No masking hides the wings from view. The brick wall in the back is the only backdrop. Something which struck me was the use of projections throughout, whether as supertitles, as title cards, or, sometimes, as even part of the performance. In projecting these words, they became actions in the play themselves, performing in certain ways so as to affect the audience, but also seeming to affect the actors as well. At a certain moment, a musician might play a certain tone, and the scene will freeze. Caption: “A blink in time.”

At the top of the piece, as the audience filters in with their sippy cups of wine and boxes of candy from the bar, the company sits upstage in a stoic line, facing the audience. There is a sense that these are characters frozen in time, but then one moves slightly and the sense changes to one of waiting. Now both spectator and actor are waiting for the play to begin, together. As the lights dim, the cast stands, and we see dust fall off of and out of their clothes. Initially, I perceived this as a bit of humor to start things off: The musicians start up a klezmer tune and the actors shake the dust off themselves from sitting so long before telling the story. But then, much later, the acting company has been sent to an extermination camp, and the dust falls once more out of their clothes—now clearly their own ash. The actors before us are ghosts, the reassembled smoke and ash from the chimneys of genocide. That we’ve seen the company acting, dancing, and singing together the whole while makes the moment even more heart-wrenching for some reason. We waited for the show to start together; is this the way it has to end?

At this moment in the play is also the only piece of recorded music used in the show (at least, as far as I perceived), and it seems an odd choice: a few bars of the title number from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! There is no line of dialogue or projection to indicate why the music cue is played; this piece seems to want even more explanation. What the casual theatre-goer might not connect: The extermination camp segment takes place in 1943, which is the same year Oklahoma! opens on Broadway. The use of this music cue seems to say, “At the same time as these events you’re seeing took place in Poland, people here in America were seeing Oklahoma! for the first time.” That is to say, while genocide was taking place elsewhere, “regular Americans like you, and you,” stood idly by—a theme which, as it happens, repeats itself frequently throughout the history of our troubled nation, even today. As for the use of this music cue to indicate all of this, I can’t be certain an audience understands; perhaps it goes by like so many other pieces in the show, as just another artsy thing they are doing.

Repetition is a device used extensively throughout the play. The scandalous love scene is played three times, in three different ways, with the final time (fittingly, at the end) being the most fully realized: the scene is meant to take place in the rain, which the technical staff graciously supplies for this ultimate iteration. While it is the most fully realized version the audience sees, it also occurs as an outward manifestation of something happening inside Asch. It is unclear whether this is a product of memory or imagination. I was reminded of the idea of ritual purification in Judaism; only after washing can the body enter the temple. The rite of purification cleanses both the body of physical uncleanliness and the soul of spiritual uncleanliness. Does Sholem Asch purify the notion of non-normative love by including this scene in the rain? Does Vogel and Taichman purify Asch by including him in the rainstorm? This, too, is unclear.

Another repeated scene is the final moments from the play within the play, when the father desecrates the Torah by throwing it to the floor in anger over his daughter’s actions. It is intriguing that the two scenes repeated most in Indecent are the very scenes which caused God of Vengeance to be labelled indecent in the United States. The repetition of the Torah scene was a device to show the various places where the company performed, in a sort of montage, one right after the other. A shorthand then developed; when the father raised the Torah over his head, the audience read that the show within the show was over, even if they couldn’t understand the dialogue.

Indecent is, at its core, a play about movement, and some of that movement occurs across borders. In a note in the playbill, Paula Vogel says she “didn’t anticipate that Indecent would be as relevant today as it is; we are again witnessing an upheaval of fear, xenophobia, homophobia, and yes, anti-Semitism.” She points out that American borders are being closed in the face of this upheaval, much like they were in the 1920s. “We must remember where the closing of borders in the 20th century led nations around the globe.”

By the conclusion, the piece felt whole but then didn’t all at the same time. If we are to follow the character of Sholem Asch in Indecent, it seems like there is no great realization or “aha” made. Asch, unsure of the potential for his play at the beginning, seems equally unsure at the end. Perhaps this is the point, that we are left feeling like the work Asch set out to do is not finished and needs to continue; that is, the work of writing theatre that tells non-Jews who the Jews are; that is, essentially, cultural education.