DramaWatch: “Indecent” proposal

Artists Rep and Profile stage Paula Vogel's play about an infamous episode in theater history. Plus: other openings, closings and theatrical miscellany.

Two women, in love — kissing even! That was controversial stuff a century ago when the Sholem Asch play “God of Vengeance” made its English-language premiere on Broadway. Paula Vogel’s 2017 Tony nominated play Indecent tells the tale of Asch’s iconoclastic approach to the stage, his (originally Yiddish) play’s worldwide success, and the tragic consequences of its travails in America.

A staged reading of God of Vengeance presented last month by Readers Theatre Rep showed how potent its characters and themes remain, as well as what an important step it was in the development of a more modern kind of theater. A recent essay for ArtWatch by Jae Carlsson lauded God of Vengeance, raising it up as an example of a theater aesthetic that’s  “off-kilter,” “naked,” “raw…real…slightly out-of-control,” while posing questions about how Indecent may or may not honor this inspiration. Despite a persistently skeptical tone toward it, Carlsson doesn’t give much indication of having seen the latter play. And though it might well ascribe to the more scrupulously organized psychological approach that Carlsson casually dismisses as “neoclassical,” Indecent is a powerful work in its own right.

Paula Vogel’s Indecent, in a joint production by Artists Rep and Profile Theatre, at Lincoln Hall. Photo: Kathleen Kelly.

Co-commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “American Revolutions” history-play program (along with Yale Repertory Theatre, where it premiered in 2015), Indecent was staged in Ashland last season, in a production by Shana Cooper that I found both captivating and heartbreaking. The remarkable Linda Alper, a veteran of OSF and Artists Rep, was in that production and serves as a kind of bridge to the Artists Rep/Profile Theatre co-production opening at Lincoln Hall. Here, Alper joins a veritable Portland all-star team, with the likes of Michael Mendelson, Gavin Hoffman, Jamie M. Rea, Joshua Weinstein and David Meyers.

Deft in its storytelling and wide-ranging in its thematic explorations, this entertaining and deeply affecting play is an ideal project for Profile Theatre’s artistic director, Josh Hecht.

Opening

MacArthur “genius grant” winner Dominique Morisseau’s blue-collar drama Skeleton Crew was a success for Artists Rep a year and a half ago, and Confederates, her look at historical legacies of institutional racism and gender bias (and another “American Revolutions” commission) gets its world premiere in Ashland this April. Meanwhile, Portlanders can enjoy her 2017 drama Pipeline, opening at Portland Playhouse. The title refers not to a conduit for oil but the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” — educational policies that criminalize minor infractions and disproportionately punish students of color. Addressing the topic through the story of an inner-city teacher who sends her son to a private school but still finds herself in a fight for his future, Morisseau creates what Variety has called “an emotionally harrowing, ethically ambiguous drama that raises barbed questions about class, race, parental duty, and the state of American education.” Damaris Webb directs this co-production by the Playhouse and Confrontation Theatre.

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Salem’s Enlightened Theatrics stages First Date, a musical whose title is its subject, that first was produced at Seattle’s ACT Theatre before going on to a brief Broadway run in 2013.

Closing

Hedwig and the Angry Inch, playing since the start of the year in the Ellyn Bye Studio, has been a big hit for Portland Center Stage. Many of the performances have been to a packed theater, and from what I’ve seen on Facebook threads and overheard while out among theater people, the show has had nothing but rapturous responses.
Except in my own head.

I’ve seen a couple of previous stage productions of Hedwig and have watched creator John Cameron Mitchell’s 2001 film version many times — it’s one of my favorite musicals. And — as  a longtime partisan for the cause of black rock’n’rollers — when the PCS production was announced, I was intrigued and excited by the prospect of a black Hedwig.
And yet to my mind the PCS production — directed by Chip Miller and starring Delphon “DJ” Curtis Jr. — misses the mark in so many ways that I walked out of the theater (way back on that Jan. 3 opening night, mind you) not elated but dispirited.

Delphon “DJ” Curtis Jr. in Hedwig and the Angry Inch at The Armory.
 Photo: Owen Carey/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage at The Armory

Blackness, of course, isn’t the issue. Although it is harder to think of this Hedwig as really German when her accent (the character occupies a sort of trans-gender nether region, so to speak, but self-identifies as female) sounds as much like Kingston as it does East Berlin. Curtis also doesn’t look like someone who might ever have been a “slip of a girly boy,” as Hedwig’s early self-description has it; he looks rather more like a halfback ready to run off-tackle. These things (or “dese tings,” as it sounds here) might seem minor, but I found they repeatedly took me out of the moment and the mood of the show.

Or maybe it’s that the mood of the show is so muted. Hedwig is a rock musical, one of those rare, glorious ones that, when done well, really rocks, in a way that feels not just stylistic but elemental. Here, though, the guitars are so muted that the bite and majesty of Stephen Trask’s songs barely register. I’ve heard it suggested that the volume had to be kept low to keep from bleeding through to the main auditorium upstairs. If so, it might have been better to make Hedwig a late-night show, so that the band could let ‘er rip.

It appears that maybe Miller tried to compensate with a self-consciously tatty visual aesthetic — that’s rock’n’roll, right? Eh, well, maybe. But Britton Mauk’s scenic design appears to be a crumbling, half-abandoned shopping mall; which suggests a particular relationship between Hedwig and the assembled crowd. Instead of a flamboyant flying-fish-out-of-water disdaining her mundane surroundings, she starts out here as a ready-made hero to the sorts of folks who already are comfortable in such a world of decay and chaos. It’s not wrong as an interpretation, but it lessens the sense of her alienation, blunts the effect of her sly/savage humor and shortens the arc of her journey. And Dominique Fawn Hill’s costume designs are just unaccountably hideous, evoking not the transgressive glamour of Bowie but the shredded-denim cheapness of Twisted Sister.

Then there’s the matter of Yitzhak, Hedwig’s “husband” and gender-twist mirror. The part is played here by Ithaca Tell, a justly beloved local actor, and a vividly engaging presence onstage. For all her talents, though, Tell is not an especially adept singer. And Yitzhak needs to be a very good singer, at moments startlingly so. If not, Yitzhak is neither a real foil nor a real threat to Hedwig, and all the tension, jealousy and manipulation between them makes little sense.

I could go on. Curtis’ timing and inflections don’t convey the sardonic self-awareness in Hedwig’s humor. The vital thematic current of Hedwig’s yearning for connection and completion, to feel acceptance both in the world and within herself, feels strangely underplayed. Which means the sweetly inspirational quality that should give the show such an energetic lift toward the end never quite materializes.

And yet, so far as I know, I’m quite alone in this negative assessment. Maybe there’s still a rush ticket available, so you can go and see how wrong I am.

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Also about to disappear are Imago’s fascinating spiral into madness and illusion Special K, starring the remarkable Anne Sorce; the superhero musical comedy Up and Away at Broadway Rose, and Samantha Van Der Merwe’s theatrical installation A Banquet at Shaking the Tree.

The flattened stage

Speaking of Hedwig, perhaps my sense of what the show should be is unduly influenced by this, a wonderful documentary about the origins of the character and the musical in the New York cabaret scene of the 1990s. 

Second-hand news

American Theatre, the magazine published by the arts service organization Theatre Communications Group, has devoted its latest issue to the subject of climate change, how it affects theater as a cultural expression and how theater as both art and business can respond to the crisis. A suite of stories gets at various angles of the matter, but one headlined “A Climate of Change” may be of particular interest for ArtsWatch readers, as it includes discussion of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s response to increasing wild-fire smoke in the region.

Best line I read this week

“White people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
— from “Letter From a Region in My Mind,” a 1962 essay for The New Yorker, by James Baldwin

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That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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