Playwright, provocateur, and more

As "The Oldest Profession" nears an end, a look at the method that shapes Paula Vogel’s incendiary work.

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In Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned To Drive, a teenage girl in the 1960s named Li’l Bit is repeatedly molested by her Uncle Peck. Yet in an interview with Playbill On-line when the play premiered in 1997, Vogel stopped short of calling Peck a pedophile.

“Critics have said that this is a play about pedophilia, but I think the relationship between these two characters is more complex than that,” she said.

If Vogel had made that statement in 2021, it might have ended her career. But no one who knows her work could believe that she has a permissive attitude toward sexual abuse. The quote wasn’t a good look, but it was a good indication of Vogel’s storytelling strategy—shock your audience before you try to enlighten them.

JoAnn Johnson (left) and Jane Bement Geesman in Profile Theatre’s production of Paula Vogel’s “The Oldest Profession.” Photo: David Kinder

Vogel is a feminist provocateur who forces audiences to confront injustice without flattering their sense of virtue. Her plays dare us to laugh at the unthinkable—sex work, AIDS, you name it—but she has a way of throwing an audience’s laughter back in their face, making them ask why they are laughing in the first place.

There is nothing haphazardly perverse about Vogel’s work. Her plays depend on a battle-tested storytelling strategy used to glorious effect in Profile Theatre’s production of Vogel’s The Oldest Profession (2005), which is having its final performances this weekend.

As Profile Theatre moves into its final few performances of Vogel’s The Oldest Profession at Zidell Yards’ Old Moody Sages, here, as I see them, are the three steps that define the Paula Vogel school of playwriting.

1. Make ‘Em Laugh, Make ‘Em Cringe

In a brilliantly nauseating scene in Vogel’s decades-spanning family saga The Mineola Twins (1999), a naïve, bigoted boy named Ben rants at his aunt, who is a right-wing radio host.

“I listen to your radio show every week!” he cries. “You’re not afraid of our legacy as Anglo-Saxons. That’s what we’re taught in school—to be ashamed of being white males. We get hit on the head about the Holocaust and date rape, and I hate being in high school! What about all the Germans who died!”

Brenda Phillips (left) and Joann Johnson in Profile’s “The Oldest profession.” Photo: David Kinder

Ben is broad enough to be a comedic cartoon, but is he a satirical character? Or are real-life racists/misogynists/anti-Semites so absurd that Vogel’s creation should be seen as a scarily accurate depiction of a radicalized soul? The line between when it is and is not acceptable to laugh is always part of Vogel’s work—and toying with it is one of the many ways that she deliberately makes audiences uncomfortable.  

The Oldest Profession perfectly illustrates Vogel’s gift for canny transgressions. It’s about five sex workers living and working during the Carter administration, but it denies you the titillating spectacle that the premise leads you to expect. There is no onstage intercourse, and the characters deal with distinctly unsexy problems, including memory loss and financial woes.

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By then, Vogel has you where she wants you—baffled, stunned, and ruminating on why. What’s she going to do for you next?

2. The Turn

The second stage of the Vogel method echoes the words of Cutter (Michael Caine), a mentor to magicians in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 Victorian thriller The Prestige. In the opening scene, Cutter explains the precarious middle act of a perfect magic trick:

“The second act is called ‘The Turn.’ The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret … but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking.”

Dan Kitrosser in Profile’s 2019 production of “The Baltimore Waltz.” Photo: David Kinder

In Vogel’s plays, The Turn arrives when you start to suspect that she is more than a playwriting provocateur—and that the impudent jokes are about to fade, leaving the stage free to be filled by the real, the tragic, the human.

In The Baltimore Waltz (1992), The Turn arrives when Anna, the play’s heroine, watches her brother, Carl, present a slideshow. Carl claims it is a series of snapshots from his travels in Europe, but what is Mickey Mouse doing in there? Did Carl stop off at Euro Disney? Or is he hiding something? (Spoiler alert: The Baltimore Waltz was inspired by Vogel’s brother, who died of AIDS in 1988. He was also named Carl.)

The Turn takes many forms, but it is usually the moment when Vogel stops provoking the audience and starts talking to them. She may begin a play by daring you to walk out of the theater, but she always makes you want to stay to find out what she is up to.

3. Finding a ‘Rifkele in the Rain’ Scene

One of the last in-person plays I saw in 2020 was Profile’s production of Vogel’s Indecent (2015), which is based on the life of the Jewish-Polish writer Sholem Asch. Asch’s work includes novels and short stories, but he is best known for God of Vengeance, a 1906 Yiddish play about a Jewish brothel owner whose daughter, Rifkele, falls in love with a female sex worker.

While God of Vengeance’s Broadway Debut scandalized New Yorkers in 1923, it can be goofily melodramatic. Yet Indecent restages several scenes from God of Vengeance, including a love scene that Profile transformed into a dream of flowing white dresses and beatific rainfall. For a blissful moment, Asch’s play is presented without controversy or irony.

The moment: Michael Mendelson and Jamie M. Rea, reaching out in Profile’s 2020 production of Paula Vogel’s “Indecent.” Photo: Kathleen Kelly

The love scene is impactful despite and because of being at the end of Indecent. Once you have discombobulated your audience and teased them with revelations to come, there’s only one thing left—to declare what your creation means to you. Vogel does that beautifully, stripping her plays down to their molten cores in the third act.

In the pantheon of Vogel’s final acts, the concluding scenes of How I Learned To Drive remain a monument. The play culminates with a look back at the beginning of Uncle Peck’s abuse of Li’l Bit, using a member of the play’s Greek Chorus to read her lines while Peck teaches her how to drive:

TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. Uncle Peck – what are you doing?

PECK. Keep driving. (He slips his hand under her blouse.)

TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. Uncle Peck – please don’t do this –

PECK. – Just a moment longer … (Peck tenses against Li’l Bit.)

TEENAGE GREEK CHORUS. (Trying not to cry.) This isn’t happening.

We know that Uncle Peck is a predator, but that scene is the play’s first graphic depiction of sexual abuse. Vogel saves the worst for last, insuring that Li’l Bit will never be just a statistic or a headline. After spending an entire play with her, you do not feel like you are watching Peck assault a character. You feel like you are watching him assault a daughter, a sister or a friend.

The stark intensity of How I Learned To Drive is only possible because Vogel misleads us so masterfully in the play’s opening scenes. When Li’l Bit describes an encounter with Uncle Peck at the start of the play, she sounds like the woozy narrator of a romance novel:

“There’s a moon over Maryland tonight, that spills into the car where I sit beside a man old enough to be – did I mention how still the night is? Damp soil and tranquil air. It’s the kind of night that makes a middle-aged man with a mortgage feel like a country boy again.”

Vogel puts us inside Li’l Bit’s brainwashed psyche, setting us up for the seismic impact of reality breaking through. How I Learned To Drive depends on Peck not wearing a sign that says “sex offender,” just as Indecent depends on Vogel not immediately revealing the depth of her affection for God of Vengeance.

I suspect that Vogel regrets the way she described the relationship between Li’l Bit and Uncle Peck in 1997. Yet she was right about one thing—it is complex, just like her plays. Works of genius usually are.

***

Paula Vogel’s The Oldest Profession at Profile Theatre

  • When: Final performances 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 14, and 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 15
  • Where: The open-air Old Moody Stages, in The Barge Building, Zidell Yards, Portland
  • Tickets: Click here
  • Production and venue information: Click here

About the author

Bennett Campbell Ferguson is a Portland-based arts journalist. In addition to writing for Oregon Arts Watch, he writes about plays and movies for Willamette Week and is the editor in chief of the blog and podcast T.H.O. Movie Reviews. He first tried his hand at journalism when he was 13 years old and decided to start reviewing science fiction and fantasy movies – a hobby that, over the course of a decade, expanded into a passion for writing about the arts to engage, entertain, and, above, spark conversation. Bennett is also a graduate of Portland State University (where he studied film) and the University of Oregon (where he studied journalism).

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