Yale Rep's 'Indecent' Celebrates Transformative Power Of Theater

An extraordinary cast, a transformative theater experience: 'Indecent' at Yale Rep

The show: Yale Repertory Theatre co-production of "Indecent" by Paula Vogel at the University Theatre in New Haven.

What makes it special: The world premiere will play La Jolla [Calif.] Playhouse next month and off-Broadway in the spring.

First impressions: In "a blink in time" a life can change — and sometimes it can happen in the midst of a play when the ownership of a work of art transfers from playwright to audience. It happens in Sholem Asch's controversial play "The God of Vengeance," as shown in Paula Vogel's "Indecent," when an ordinary man is struck by a moment in a play that resonates down to his soul.

That's the power of art — and specifically the power of theater — as demonstrated in Vogel's elegant script in a production of music, movement and shared memory that's beautifully staged and wonderfully acted. It's not only the story about the journey of Asch's play but about those who are transformed by it — on stage and off.

The story: We are introduced to a resilient theatrical troupe that tells its audience about "The God of Vengeance," a first play by the young revolutionary writer Asch, written in Poland in 1907. The three-act drama written in Yiddish is first dismissed by conservative Jews in a private literary salon.

But the playwright is unstoppable, and fueled by the enthusiasm of those actors and acolytes who believe in the work, the play travels through Europe, where it is a triumph. When the company immigrates to New York, it performs the work successfully for years in the Yiddish theaters in front of immigrant audiences, until it attempts the leap to Broadway in 1923, with the play now translated into English. The cast and producer are arrested, jailed, put on trial and the show closed down because of "obscenity" charges.

What was obscene about the production?: It is set in a house of prostitution (but there have been plays that have done that before) and it features a tender and explicit romance between two women (that's a bit dicier, but the depiction of homosexuality on stage was not unprecedented).

But the play's Jewish characters are presented in an unsavory light. Taken all together, it spelled trouble for established Jews who wanted to present a more pristine image of themselves to the larger world. So the cast and producer go to court.

Ah, the courtroom drama: Not at all. There's just a hint of the trial. Vogel, working with director and co-creator Rebecca Taichman (Yale Rep's "Marie Antoinette," "The Evildoers"), tells a much larger story than simply the aborted Broadway run.

It also speaks of immigration, assimilation, of censorship and self-censorship. It's all told with intimacy, simplicity and honesty by a cast of seven terrific actors — and three on-stage klezmer musicians: Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva and Travis W. Hendrix.

But at its heart it is the story of the transformative pull of art: Taichman's lyrical and image-rich direction, David Dorf's mesmerizing choreography and the atmospheric-setting music composed by Gutkin and Halva all add up to a compelling world of theatrical storytelling.

The story doesn't end with the court's conclusion. Indeed, the emotional wallop of the piece comes in that aftermath and how the play's flame is kept alive in the attics of Jewish ghettos during Nazi rule, and how the play's liberating spirit of love and freedom is of the essence to this special audience.

The cast: Extraordinary. Richard Topol, as the accidental stage manager, gives Vogel's play its exquisite heart and soul. Steven Rattazzi (so funny in "Marie Antoinette") is a man of many skillful guises and accents. Max Gordon Moore (a standout in the Rep's "Arcadia") brings passion and dignity as the younger Asch. Tom Nelis is near hypnotic in all his movements and roles. Mimi Lieber brings seasoned complexity to her multiple parts. Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson also impress throughout and fulfill the pivotal rain scene's promise of amazing grace.

Reservations: The listing of the Broadway shows in a given year that is projected is a bit reductive. And the New Haven/Connecticut lines seem like pandering to the hometown audience.

Who will like it: Those who like theater of the transformative kind.

Who won't: Folks who find the same issues disturbing now that shocked in 1923.

For the kids: Older kids who appreciate theatrical storytelling.

Twitter review: The theatrical season is off to a smashing start with a moving celebration of the power of theater and its communion among artists.

Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: The Greeks have a word for it: catharsis. It's the moment of profound emotional connection — be it bliss, fear or grief — in watching a play. Here Vogel and Taichman take that feeling famously created by one artist and double down on it.

INDECENT, which runs one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission, will continue through Oct. 24 at the University Theatre, 222 York St., in New Haven. Information at yalerep.org and 203-432-1234.

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