INDECENT by Carol Rosegg

Special Effect

Lights like gilded silver unfurl, un-rushed, over anguished violin. Figures emerge in turns from the receding darkness, draped in woolly gray-brown fashions from a time long past. Thick cascades of dust pour out from their sleeves, shaken loose by snapping wrists, swinging arms, spinning bodies.

These are the hypnotic opening moments of Indecent, a new Yale Rep-commissioned play that enjoyed its very first opening night last night. Written by Paula Vogel, directed by Rebecca Taichman and conceived between the two of them, it tracks the history surrounding The God of Vengeance, a tragedy penned in 1907 by the Jewish playwright Sholem Asch. About a Jewish father whose daughter falls in love with one of the female prostitutes he manages, leading him to reject both his God and his child, it traverses enough taboos that, in 1907, having a fainting couch at readings would’ve been the responsible thing to do.

sponsored by

eighth blackbird at Yale School of Music

But the heroes of Indecent are the hardier ones—the countercultural workhorses, a.k.a. the actors and stage hands, who aren’t so easily offended, and who power Vengeance through a successful tour of Europe (and eventually to Broadway). Following them, we get to see limited performances of the source material. In a hysterical sequence—probably the funniest in the play—the actors perform Vengeance’s tense, not-supposed-to-be-funny-at-all finale again and again, to represent a montage of different show dates in different cities. The cast would play out Vengeance’s dramatic final moment; the lights would come down; the characters would scramble into a new position; a new subtitle would announce the location of this new performance—perhaps Rome, or Bratislava; and the cast would perform the play’s final moments again, each delivery seeming more over-the-top than the last. On the other hand, Vengeance’s pivotal romance-in-the-rain scene—also a key reference point for Indecent’s characters—is only seen once.

According to Indecent’s telling, Vengeance was variously embraced and rejected during runs across Europe and on Broadway, in the latter case getting shut down for obscenity despite making cuts to accommodate uptight audiences. What’s unusual about Vengeance isn’t just its willingness to touch subjects considered untouchable, but also its sympathy for the marginalized. Both notions give a concept like “indecent” lots of angles for Vogel and Taichman to play with. And they get to do it in the context of resonant historical phenomena—mass immigration, global war, Prohibition, Nazism and America’s paranoid “Red Scare” following World War II.

In one of the most classic setups of the play, a woman stands on stage in a cabaret, crooning with aplomb. Red velvet is at her back, an audience of listeners and musicians to her right. Like all the actors tasked with singing in Indecent, she does it very, very well. In this case she sings in German, with such a buttery accent that I almost thought it was French. Thankfully, English subtitles were projected, one line at a time, across the short, wide front of her small stage.

It’s one of the ways that, as Indecent tells Vengeance’s story, the new play reveals its own transgressive nature, noticeable in its detachment from normal, “theatery” theater experiences. The play shirks big or static backdrops, imbuing the University Theatre’s stage with its natural sense of enormity and possibility. It uses projected text early and often to narrate and translate. The musicians perform on stage and have stage names, existing in the same universe as the play’s characters. The lighting design is striking and unusually coherent, as if someone figured out how to feed an edited, color-corrected version of the play into your brain in real time.

It’s cinematic, not just theatrical, and that’s pretty special.

222 York St, New Haven (map)
Playing through October 24.
(203) 432-1234
$86, or $78 for Yale faculty/staff and $30 for students

Written by Dan Mims. Photographs, by Carol Rosegg, provided courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre.

More Stories