Review: Indecent by Austin Playhouse
by Michael Meigs
Director Lara Toner and the many artists of Austin Playhouse bring their audience into a fully mermerizing experience with their astonishingly accomplished production of Paula Vogel's Indecent - the True Story of a Little Jewish Play. In their hands and hearts, the work transcends theatrical experience; they create a multilayered emotional, intellectual, and historical experience peopled with vividly convincing characters and set within a world that no longer exists. The world of Yiddish-language theatre is gone, leaving traces in so much of American popular culture, and this production makes us ache for the loss of it.
Audiences are always complicit with artists. We agree to believe in the temporary and the oh-so-artificial reality they present to us. Austin Playhouse's staging of Indecent delivers far more than that. In the first moment we meet this somewhat shabby troupe as traveling thespians with assigned roles, much like those of a commedia dall'arte—and over the course of the evening that simple ensemble transforms into a complex, nuanced, successful, and ultimately threatened collection of individuals who are far more than cardboard characters.
The relatively straightforward envelope story captivates. In 1906 the ambitious young writer Sholem Asch presents his first work, a play, to a famed Yiddish theatrical troupe. Against the angry opposition of his colleagues, the empresario and lead actor accepts and stages a piece that's far from conventional and centers upon the love story of two women. That work, God of Vengeance, is the play within the play Indecent. It's a tale of conflict between righteous Orthodox Jewish morality and the stark realities of surviving in a world of hardship. The God of Vengeance is a success and tours the major capitals of Europe. We in the audience are fed snippets of it, first in the presentation and then in sharp short scenes, virtually snapshots, of the work in performance. The delicate love scene between the two women in the rain from the second act of God of Vengeance is played and mirrored several times, ultimately in a refreshing, joyous, and unexpected trick of stage magic.
The greater movement is from the shtetls of Poland (symbolized by Leml the tailor, who becomes caught up with the troupe) to the capitals of Europe, then in the early 1920's to Yiddish theatre in the Bowery and thence to Provincetown and Broadway. The work's title refers to the angry, puritanical, and patriarchal reaction of the guardians of protestant Christian ethics, who have the troupe arrested and expelled in the 1920's. In Europe they continue, performing into the 1930's and into the doom of the 1940's.
All that -- though it's a lot of story -- is secondary to the vivid characters created by the Austin Playhouse troupe. Ben Wolfe as Leml (later, reluctantly, "call me Lou") serves as narrator but also as an earnest, not terribly bright, and devoted foil to the brilliant artists. Other artists, notably Michael Ferstenfeld, Sarah Fleming Walker, and Kathleen Fletcher, are particularly protean, stepping into and out of different roles. Fletcher is particularly impressive, taking on six roles, including two incarnations of the ingenue in God of Vengeance (the first a culturally displaced Yiddish actress in a bewildering world of English speakers, the second her replacement, a bouncy all-American enthusiast).
A.J. Clauss, the young male of the Yiddish troupe, appears in several roles but his recurring role as the writer Sholem Asch eventually becomes apparent as the backbone of the play. That message is emphasized in closing scenes when the bearded Huck Huckaby appears as the same Asch, a grim survivor who angrily refuses to have his earliest work resurrected by a young fan from the Ivy League (also played by Clauss).
The dialect and language work is delicious throughout, with bursts of real Yiddish, English pretending to be Yiddish in convention with our suspension of disbellief, painfullly pronounced accented English, bursts of other languages, and scrupulous, convincing delivery of New Yorkese. Equally impressive is the attention to costuming. The three-piece klezmer band of Nathan Daniel Ford (violin), Noel Esquivel, Jr. (clarinet), and Chris Humphrey (accordion) dresses the virtually bare stage with evocative music. Toner's blocking and the cast's swift agility provide smooth reconfigurations of minimalist set pieces and shifts of costume, so deftly choreographed as to be virtually unnoticeable.
Indecent carries one away, to the extent that one doesn't want this 100-minute one-act work to end. After the deep pang as the lights went down for the final time, challenging us to absorb the several stories and the many Jewish characters ghosted before us, I was the first on my feet for the standing ovation.
April 14 - May 14, 2023
405 W. 22nd Street
Austin, TX, 78705
INDECENT | April 21–May 14, 2023 | AUSTIN PREMIERE
Thurs – Sat at 8:00 p.m. and Sun at 5:00 p.m. | Sun May 14 at 2:00 p.m.
Austin Playhouse (new West Campus location) | 405 West 22nd | Austin TX 78705
Tickets are $34-38; with Pick-Your-Price Thursdays and Half-Price Student Tickets are available at austinplayhouse.com; group discounts are available for parties of 10+ with a pre-show party reception room available. Group inquiries can be made at email@example.com