Pictured: Max Wolkowitz and Ben Cherry. Photo by Cory Weaver
By Jason Epperson
I’m afraid to write this review.
It feels like an insurmountable task because I know the words that follow herein will dissuade some people from attending Kansas City Repertory Theater’s masterful production of Paula Vogel’s gut-churning “Indecent.” So if I can sum this review up before I begin, let me do so by saying that good plays move you, and great plays change you. This one certainly has the propensity to do the latter.
I’m also still trying to come down from my experience with it two nights ago, to no avail. I’m not looking forward to reliving my emotions from Saturday night in order to write a mess of ham-fisted prose that will surely undersell “Indecent” by many orders of magnitude. But let me give it a shot.
“Indecent” is a play about a play, but thankfully not a play about the theater. It’s a play about us, really. In 1906, Polish-Jewish author Sholem Asch wrote a play called “The God of Vengeance” in an attempt to tell real stories in Yiddish. Not stories that make Jewish people out to be superheroes, but to make them real. The play has its first reading at a living room salon, where we begin to get some ideas about the plot. “The God of Vengence” is about a prostitute who falls in love with the daughter of the owner of her brothel. They are discovered and the father forces his daughter and wife to work in the brothel in the end, throwing the Torah at them in shame. So…not the type of material that got around much in the early 1900s.
Throughout the course of “Indecent” more of the plot of “The God of Vengeance” is revealed to us as the play moves across Europe, becoming a sensation. Eventually, the troupe of performers make it to America to present it in New York. Meanwhile, the actors playing the lesbian couple in the play fall in love in real life. A commercial producer signs the show for Broadway, but drastic changes are made to the script. The prostitute becomes a villain, stripping the beautiful virgin daughter of her purity. Still, it plays uptown and represents the first lesbian kiss on the Broadway stage – and then all the actors are arrested on opening night for “indecency.”
The play then makes its way back to Europe, at the most difficult time in modern history.
There’s so much more, but a thorough plot description is futile here, as this play covers a lot of ground in 90 minutes. It’s a condemnation of homophobia, censorship, Nazis — all familiar territory for the theater. But what hits you like a ton of bricks is its condemnation of American “values.” Was America ever great? European Jews arrived here by the boatload to escape Hitler, and what they got was more persecution than in Europe, sans the gas chambers. I realize that’s a big caveat, but it’s an important criticism. If you take the Nazis out of the equation, in many aspects America was a worse place than Europe for Jews. “The God of Vengeance” was revered everywhere, until it was translated to English and deemed “indecent.”
I can’t stress enough though, that “Indecent” is not one big downer. It’s full of life and vitality, humor and love. Much of that coming from the character of Lemmel, the stage manager, who is our narrator. Ben Cherry’s performance brings us into the world of the place with fervor and passion. He is us at our best, and he leads us through the proceedings with joy and heartbreak. Scenic Designer Jack Magaw provides an elegant, simple and perfect framework in which “Indecent” can live and breath, accented by Josh Epstein’s dusky, skewed lighting.
The occasion is scored with song and dance and rain. But also noise and power and fear. The climax is about as clear as any climax could be, and it’s followed by a conclusion that probably isn’t necessary, save for the time it gives the audience to dry their eyes and bring their hearts to a healthy tempo.
“Indecent” shook me. My chest literally burned in pain for a good half hour following. As I tried to leave the theater I had to pause in the vomitory to gain the strength back in my knees. That’s not hyperbole. This isn’t the type of work a lot of people are interested in seeing at the moment, but KCRep’s production is as important as it is impeccable. Go.
INDECENT runs through February 10. For more information visit kcrep.org.