Indecent a must-see
for history, music and morality
Play on censorship marks its Canadian debut at the Segal Centre
By Byron Toben
“O tempora! O mores!” (What times, What customs) agonized Cicero during the last days of the Roman Empire. That phrase has come down to us over the centuries, reflecting ever-changing standards of decency and morality.
The phrase has been picked up by such as Edgar Alan Poe, Flanders and Swann and even Ted Cruz.
Theatre is a good example. Many works have been censored, banned or closed down depending on the mores of the time, only to be respected in later years.
This play, by Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel, marks its Canadian debut after ranking among the most produced plays in the USA since its Broadway triumph.
I have a brief list of examples at the end of this article.
For now, applause to Lisa Rubin and the Segal Centre for bringing Indecent to its stage. This play, by Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel, marks its Canadian debut after ranking among the most produced plays in the USA since its Broadway triumph. (Other Canadian cities are lining up.)
Indecent is about the ascent and descent of the controversial 1906 Yiddish play God of Vengeance by poet/essayist Sholem Asch. After great success in Europe and translation into other foreign languages, it was finally brought to New York, where it was successful in Yiddish in the lower East Side. This tempted a producer to bring it to Broadway in English.
However, after six weeks of the run, performers were arrested and convicted of “indecency” and the show forced to close down. The later overturn of the verdict upon appeal made no difference and the piece was not revived.
What was all the fuss about?
A father operates a brothel in his basement. To protect his virginal teenage daughter from sin, he purchases a Torah to place over her bed. She does become friendly with one of the prostitutes and hormones result in the first female-to-female kiss on stage. In his rage over this, the father tosses the Torah to the floor.
Opponents denounce the same-sex kiss and some Jewish forces denounce the depiction as ammunition for anti Semitic attacks.
Proponents champion the right of artists to depict Jews as good or bad as are other groups and to recognize biologic urges as normal.
This tale of the original play’s odyssey into a play about it is made even more theatrically pleasing by the weaving of three Klezmer-style musicians onstage. They also play three minor characters. They are clarinettist Gabriel Paquin-Buki, violinist Brigitte Dajczer and accordionist Sergio Popa.
The two girls are daughter Chana (McGill and NTS grad Cara Krisman), prostitute Halina (Julia Juhas, Lili St.Cyr at Centaur’s Last Night at the Gayety).
Narrating the whole as Stage Manager Lemml is classical actor Ryan Bommarito.
All in all, the ensemble portrays 47 characters, best described in the program by age. For “Elders” we are pleased to see popular locals Felicia Shulman and Sam Stein. “Middles” include actor/writer/teacher Dov Mickelson and “Ingénues” Shaw Festival regular Mark Uhre.
The Segal is famous for always having great choreography and Ray Hogg maintains that reputation.
Famous female-to-female kisses on screen include Marlene Dietrich in Morocco (1930), Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis in Black Swan (2010) and Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008).
Famous plays closed down on day of opening on Broadway include The Cradle Will Rock (1937), salvaged by 21-year-old director Orson Welles as a one-man show in a close-by empty theatre with author Marc Blitzstein.
Famous plays penalized for shocking words of the time: G. Bernard Shaw for “bloody” in Pygmalion and J.M. Synge for “shift” in Playboy of the Western World.
Thus do key gestures and buzzwords shift over time – O tempora! O mores…
Indecent continues at the Segal centre until May 19.
Images: Andrée Lanthier
Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been WestmountMag.ca’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.