Described by one critic as “Brecht meets vaudeville meets melodrama,” Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” is a play about a controversial play.
But it’s about much more.
“At its most elemental this is about why art matters,” said Eric Rosen, who is staging “Indecent” for Kansas City Repertory Theatre (it begins previews Jan. 18 in Spencer Theatre).
“It’s about why art endures. And how art can change the world.”
“Indecent” is based on a true story. In Warsaw, Poland, at the turn of the last century, playwright Sholem Asch founded a Yiddish theater company and wrote “God of Vengeance,” a drama about an Orthodox Jew having a crisis of conscience over his livelihood: He runs a brothel.
Things become even more complicated when the man’s virginal daughter falls in love with one of the prostitutes.
For nearly two decades “God of Vengeance” was performed throughout Europe. But when it opened on Broadway in the early 1920s it was hit by the double whammy of homophobia and anti-Semitism.
Cast members were arrested, the play was declared obscene for its depiction of a lesbian kiss (the first ever on Broadway) and a court order stymied further American productions for nearly 30 years.
“Indecent” provides a history of the play’s creation and many productions over the years, with the cast portraying dozens of characters and performing several musical numbers.
Periodically the audience witnesses scenes from “God of Vengeance” as it is performed in locales as diverse as a Soviet theater, a Broadway house and the Warsaw ghetto during World War II.
Rosen, who stepped down last year after a decade as the Rep’s artistic director, calls “Indecent” an “epic” work.
“It demonstrates how a single play, once obscure, changes the way we think about sexual identity, Jewish history and the very purpose of theater.
“It’s a perfect love letter to everything I care about.”
It almost seems that Rosen was fated to direct “Indecent.” Two years ago he was invited by the play’s producer to see a preview performance on Broadway.
“Going in, I didn’t know anything about it. But here’s the weird thing: I’ve known the play ‘God of Vengeance’ for over 20 years. I studied it in school. My first dissertation was at least in part about it.
“So sitting in that theater and realizing, oh, this is a play about ‘God of Vengeance’… it was surreal. It was real life colliding with my creative life.”
Rosen subsequently directed the production of “Indecent” that opened late last year on the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. That show is being moved more or less intact to the Rep stage.
The more he has worked with Vogel’s play, the more depth and breadth Rosen has discovered within it.
“You might think that this play is about a lesbian kiss. But that may be the least interesting thing about it.
“It’s a story about immigration, the fear and hatred of immigrants, the complications of speaking another language in public, the legal battles that we see in our world about immigrants … and it’s all coming from a story more than 100 years old.
“We opened the Washington production shortly after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, and it came off as hugely contemporary. I wouldn’t be surprised if Kansas City audiences aren’t reminded of the Jewish Community Center shooting a few years ago.”
The production provides special challenges for its cast, who must often transform from one character to another in just seconds.
Rep veteran Emily Shackelford portrays six characters, including the wife of playwright Sholem Asch and various actresses who performed in “God of Vengeance” over the decades. She also plays the brothel owner’s daughter in play-within-a-play scenes.
“There are so many layers here that it’s really fun,” she said. “You will play back-to-back characters … one is playing a dramatic scene, then you turn around and have a comic moment, which is also a commentary on the previous scene. …
“It’s our job to make it very clear who we are in every scene.”
For actor Ben Cherry, who plays both Lemml, the Yiddish theater company’s stage manager, and “Indecent’s” onstage narrator, the power of Vogel’s writing asserts itself with almost every performance.
“You can tell when the audience is following what’s happening on stage,” Cherry said. “You hear sighs, gasps, exclamations when they realize what’s going on. There are many times in this piece when you can just feel the air gush out of the room. For an actor that’s really satisfying.”
Cherry is something of an “Indecent” veteran. He was understudy for four other actors during the Broadway run and has played Lemml/narrator in mountings at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis and at the Arena Stage. In each case the text was the same but the production subtly different.
“As an actor you have to be flexible,” he said. “I have rhythms from the original production that must be tempered for this one. Eric and my director at the Guthrie have different visions. Same story, but some directors go for theatricality, some for naturalism. At the Arena, the space lent itself to naturalism, quiet acting. Now we’re finding in a bigger room like Spencer Theatre there’s more space to fill. You need to be more theatrical in your truth to reach the back row.”
Live music provides a narrative backbone and emotional through line for “Indecent.” Vogel’s script calls for the performance of several well-known songs, including Yiddish favorites like “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon” and the title tune from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma!”
The scoring of those numbers and the composing of nearly 20 pieces of incidental music fell to Alexander Sovronsky, who is one of three musicians appearing on stage to play a variety of instruments: fiddle, mandolin, piano, ukulele, clarinet, accordion, guitar, kazoo, whistles and percussion.
There’s almost enough music and dance in the show to call it a musical, Sovronsky said, but not quite. For a true musical, he said, incredible voices are a necessity, for the songs are arguably the single most important element of the show.
For a “play with music,” though, “I’m less interested in people with Broadway voices than with people who sound true and honest. It can be raw, doesn’t have to be super sophisticated or operatic. In a show like this, the honest roughness of the singers is an asset.”
That Sovronsky even got to take a swing at scoring “Indecent” is something of a miracle. As he explains it, his contract for the Arena Stage/KC Rep production was drawn up and signed before the playwright announced that she wanted all future productions to employ the score written for the Broadway run.
“From here on out every production — with the exception of ours — has to use the Broadway score,” Sovronsky said. “It’s a bit of a fluke, but I’m the only composer who ever will be allowed to write a new score for this play.”
The music Sovronsky has produced will take audiences from 1905 Warsaw to Jazz Age New York and back to Europe in the 1940s, “flip-flopping not only through time but through place. So the style of music changes. … We start with traditional Yiddish music and by the middle of the play we’re dealing with Broadway standards.”
“Indecent” will play at Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s Spencer Theatre Jan. 18-Feb. 10. Tickets are $31-$77 through kcrep.org, 816-235-2700.
The second half of Kansas City Rep’s current season emphasizes works by and about women.
“Actually, we didn’t sit down and think we’d do a season about women,” said former Rep artistic director Eric Rosen. “We’ve always been ahead of the curve in gender parity when it comes to writers and directors.
“These are just very good plays that happen to have been written by women. Diversity isn’t a goal, it’s an effect. Our job is to find the most exciting voices, and that will naturally include a world that looks like America. If we’re only doing plays by white men, we’re not doing our job.”
▪ “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play,” Feb. 22-March 17, Copaken Stage. Jocelyn Bioh’s comedy is an African re-imagining of the “Mean Girls” story. It’s set in Ghana’s most exclusive boarding school, where the ambitions of queen bee Paulina are thrown off track by the arrival of Erika, a new student from America with talent and beauty to spare. Chip Miller directs this regional premiere.
▪ “Pride and Prejudice,” March 22-April 14, Spencer Theatre. Jane Austen’s acclaimed 19th century novel about Elizabeth Bennet, her sisters, their overzealous mother and a string of unsuitable suitors has been adapted for the stage by Kate Hamill. This regional premiere is directed by Marissa Wolf.
In addition the Rep once again presents its OriginKC: New Works Festival, April 19 through May 19 on the Copaken Stage with the following titles:
▪ “Frida … A Self Portrait.” KCRep’s Fox Fellowship Resident Actor Vanessa Severo has created this play about Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, following her from childhood polio and a crippling bus accident to her drug addiction, painting career and marriage to renowned artist Diego Rivera. Joanie Schultz directs.
▪ “Unreliable.” Dipika Guha’s play features three characters, each with their own view of reality. While depicting a suspected terrorist and a love affair conducted exclusively via email, this absurdist comedy asks which — if any of the three — is telling the truth. Directed by Marissa Wolf.