Every once in a while you get a play that speaks to the heart of what theater is all about, not only as an entertainment but also as a way for people to see one another with fresh eyes, to understand one another and, perhaps, to experience each other. The Kavinoky, in collaboration with Jewish Repertory Theatre, is presenting one of those plays right now.
There is a mesmerizing quality to this elegant production of "Indecent," Paula Vogel's powerful retelling of a century-old theatrical scandal. Right from the start, the effects are stunning in their simplicity – beginning with the effortless motion of ashes streaming onto the stage, reminding us there are more forces at work here than the pens of playwrights and those who would censor them.
"Indecent" is based on the complex history of Sholem Asch's play "God of Vengeance," written when he lived in Warsaw, Poland, in 1906. The city had a vibrant Jewish community then and the arts were flourishing in pre-world war Europe – Picasso was painting, Stravinsky was composing, Nijinsky was dancing.
New ideas were the currency of culture, and Asch was hopeful of finding backers for his play, the story of a Jewish brothel owner whose daughter Rifkele defies his wishes that she marry a rabbi's son. Unknown to the rabbi, Rifkele has fallen in love with Manke, a prostitute who works for him.
The action is guided by a young tailor named Lemml, played flawlessly by Jordan Levin. While established producers reject Asch's play as being too critical of Jews (he's told he should be throwing his rocks "outside the tent"), the naive newcomer Lemml falls immediately and passionately in love with the play and becomes its stage manager. For him, the women's relationship is beautiful, elevating them out of their sordid surroundings.
A cleverly comic bit of staging follows "God of Vengeance" as it becomes a hit in the capitals of Europe before landing in the United States, where Asch and his company run head-first into America's Puritan sensibilities. After rewrites that gut the play's meaning – they take out the love and leave only the sex – the cast is arrested and convicted of obscenity. In New York at the time, you could kill women on stage, but women couldn't kiss each other.
Vogel's intricate narrative encompasses layer after layer of the characters as they play other characters, other actors and elements of someone else's internal monologues, sometimes through song and dance. Director Kristen Tripp Kelley and Lynne Kurdziel Formato, who handled choreography and movement, do virtuoso work in orchestrating the action of the dozen cast members around the set.
Joseph Donohue III is exceptional as usual as musical director and also is part of the ensemble, along with fellow musicians Maggie Zindle, Megan Callahan and Benjamin Levitt. Though the show is not a musical per se, the natural music of life is a big part of the production. The original compositions and arrangements of Lisa Gutkin and Aaron Halva, rooted in klezmer music and popular German tunes, are a natural and at times surprising accent to the joy and heartache occurring onstage.
Adam Yellen and Arin Lee Dandes delightfully embrace the roles of the young actors Channa and Avram who are playing the roles of Asch and his wife, before Dandes peels off to play Rifkele in the scenes from "Vengeance." For her role inside a role, Aleks Malejs plays the prostitute Manke with a true heart of gold, while Peter Palmisano is a long-bearded wonder as the angry father and other key parts.
Rounding out the ensemble are Matt Witten, solid as usual and with dead-on deadpan delivery of his comic lines; Debbie Pappas Sham as Rifkele's mother – torn between spouse and daughter – among other parts; and Saul Elkin, playing in several layers the senior arbiter of what should and should not be done in a play – starting with some gentle finger-wagging when the Dandes-Yellens get carried away as the affectionate Asches.
The abundance of affecting performances earlier on make the later scenes all the more heartbreaking, as we see what may be the troupe's final performances of "God of Vengeance" in an attic in a Polish ghetto, with Nazis in the streets. Still, they are holding on – to their belief, to their culture, to their art. And, even now, decades later, we are there, with them.
4 stars (out of four)
Presented by the Kavinoky and Jewish Repertory Theatre companies at the Kavinoky, 320 Porter Ave., on the D'Youville College campus. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, at 3:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through March 29. Tickets are $45; $40 for seniors, at kavinokytheatre.com or 829-7668.