One of the early revelations in Paula Vogel's acclaimed, based-on-a-true-story one-act drama is just how far and for how long God of Vengeance, Polish-Jewish author Sholem Asch's controversial 1907 play, trotted the globe before authorities branded it as criminally "indecent."
The young playwright's revolutionary (and first) script, which tells the story of a Torah-desecrating Jewish brothel owner whose daughter falls in love with a woman, was provocative right from its initial living room reading ("You are pouring petrol on the flames of anti-Semitism," argues one appalled actor played by David Darlow), but it was producible. In fact, God of Vengeance, though it laid bare what Asch (Noah LaPook) calls "Our streets. Our gutters. Our desires," played Berlin, Saint Petersburg, Constantinople, and Bratislava throughout the early 1900s without incident.
Only in 1923, when it arrived in the United States, the self-proclaimed land of the free, did vice squad thugs storm the wings of Broadway's Shubert Theatre and arrest the cast on obscenity charges.
In the preface to the published script, Vogel notes that the project started as a collaboration with director Rebecca Taichman that loosely focused on the trial. But the far more interesting story, she found, was the one about the erasure of Yiddish language and culture, rep sweats, the anti-immigrant hypocrisy of a country that prided itself as a light unto other nations for most of the 20th century, the Jewish-American experience and "passing," and the radicalism of artists carrying on in impossible circumstances. Counterintuitively, there's more hope here and less grim agitation than audiences might expect.
Gary Griffin's kinetic, Brechtian, and often visually stunning production for Victory Gardens Theater uses text projections and a metatheatrical troupe of actors to piece together a immensely complicated time line that spans 50 years and many countries. In some ways, its tonal buoyancy and fluctuating scale remind me of Jay Torrence's brilliant Burning Bluebeard, which similarly chronicles a very specific doomed 20th-century production and asks timeless questions about artists and their resilience.
In Griffin's staging, grand, beautifully blocked stage pictures give way to quiet, devastating moment of realism, like the cast breaking and sharing what little bread they have before putting on a show in an attic in occupied Poland. And yet the actors display humor and self-deprecation in the face of hopeless despair. "If our performance does not please you," announces stage mananger Lemml (Benjamin Magnuson), "please throw food! Kugel? Rugelach, anyone?"
Griffin's cast of performers and musicians are universally empathetic and stirring—particularly notable are Catherine LeFrere as Halina and Kiah Stern as Chana, the two lovers whose onstage affection sends Broadway into a puritanical fit. v