It takes an artist to mix together some of history’s most incendiary issues — from same-sex love to the Holocaust, obscenity, immigration and government oppression — and deliver the results in a tender, mesmerizing and even humorous package.
Paula Vogel’s play “Indecent,” opening Friday at ARTS at Marks, does just that.
“Indecent” is set in the era leading up to World War II, and details the historical background of another play, “God of Vengeance,” with origins in pre-war Poland.
The work, by Yiddish playwright Sholem Asch, was performed across Europe. But when it moved to Broadway in 1923, it sent New York into a tumult inspired by its inclusion of a lesbian kiss.
That kiss got all of its actors arrested.
VOGEL, A 1998 Pulitzer-winner for her play “How I Learned to Drive,” brought “Indecent” to Broadway in 2017 to widespread acclaim.
With song, choreography and a string of actors playing an assortment of roles that cover half a century, Vogel has woven together a tale based on Asch’s work and the hot water he and his theatrical troupe found themselves in.
The play begins in 1906, as Asch writes “God of Vengeance.” His wife is delighted by his edgy script, which has the daughter of a brothel owner falling in love with one of the prostitutes. When Asch holds an informal reading of the script, some readers are appalled by the provocative storyline. Nevertheless, the play becomes a hit throughout Europe.
Once translated into English for a Broadway run, however, key parts of the script are changed, undercutting the women’s loving relationship with lasciviousness.
We watch as Asch and his troupe suffer the twists of fortune.
“I’m a long-time fan of Paula Vogel’s,” says director Lurana Donnels O’Malley, a theater professor at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.
“This is Vogel’s finest play, it’s brilliant. But it’s also the most challenging project I’ve ever done. It’s very difficult to read on the page – it has so many characters played by the same actors.”
O’Malley decided that she’d most like the play done in the intimate setting at ARTS at Marks Garage’s, where the thrust stage has actors surrounded by audience on three sides.
Add to the challenges the question of properly representing Yiddish theater, singing in other languages, and speaking with various accents from German to French and Irish.
On top of that, the actors address thematic issues that reverberate historically and politically, now as in 1923.
“When my family watched ‘Indecent,’ we were so impressed that Vogel had knitted all of these issues together,” O’Malley said.
“She’s an extremely compassionate writer. She tackles human issues about vulnerability and tolerance, but she says it in a non-preachy, nonjudgmental way.”
Take for instance, attitudes toward immigrants. When charges are levied against the “God of Vengeance” cast, the controversy seems to be about obscenity. Behind the scenes, however, New York’s Jewish community was consumed with angst about public perception and its repercussions.
“They didn’t feel the play was a good representation of them at a very difficult time, when they needed to show solidarity and assimilation in American culture,” points out O’Malley.
The year after the play is infamously censored on Broadway, the Immigration Act of 1924 was passed, limiting immigration. The law particularly affected Jews (as well as certain European groups and Asians).
“The parallels with today are notable,” O’Malley observes.
CONTEMPORARY AUDIENCES will also respond to the treatment of lesbian love in “Indecent.”
“There is that first same-sex kiss on the American stage in the original play, but Vogel then has a sensual, same-sex women’s relationship among two actors in the troupe,” O’Malley notes, played here by Christina Uyeno and Annie Lokomaika‘i Lipscomb.
“Queer scenes permeate the play in a beautiful way – a play that talks about tolerance and challenges faced particularly by women.”
O’Malley’s drive to tackle the challenging production was bolstered by husband Sean O’Malley, the play’s music director, and their 17-year-old daughters. The family is working on a production together for the first time here.
Ruby O’Malley plays the violin throughout. Her violin is integral to the production as she mingles with the actors at key moments, letting her instrument speak hauntingly. Sister Teia O’Malley designed the production’s props.
The O’Malleys’ company, Open Home Performance Network, is co-producing “Indecent” with ARTS at Marks Garage. The company aims to address current social issues.
Vogel’s own words cast light on what made the play important in 1906 and what makes it important today. When “Indecent” opened at The Vineyard in New York, during its pre-Broadway stint in 2016, Vogel said, “I think the power of art is the power to wound our memory. I think the power of art is a way for us to change our world view. I think art is our spiritual bread that we break together.”
O’Malley says, “This show is about the power of the arts. It’s meta-theatrical in that sense – it’s a play about a small troupe of actors making due with what they have to produce art that means something to them. And that’s also what the cast and crew is doing. If we want to go forward and achieve social justice in our time, it’s the arts that help inspire that.”
>> Where: The ARTS at Marks Garage, 1159 Nuuanu Ave.
>> When: Opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, continues 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through June 30
>> Cost: $15-$25
>> Info: 521-2903, artsatmarks.com, openhomeperformance.org