Courtesy of The New York Times

Paula Vogel at Second Stage Theatre in 2012.

April 17, 2016

A Concert Reading of Paula Vogel’s Indecent

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At five o’clock sharp on the evening of April 13, the doors to the Klarman Auditorium opened, and the crowd that had amassed just outside funneled into the dimly lit seats. The first few rows filled in seconds. The stage was warmly lit, bare except for a piano and eight chairs. The crowd buzzed with hushed, excited conversation, eagerly awaiting the concert reading of the most recent play from Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and Cornell alum Paula Vogel, directed by Meghan Brodie, Ph.D. ’10.

Vogel first came to Cornell as a graduate student in 1974; throughout her years at Cornell, she wrote plays and taught classes in drama and playwriting, earning her Master of Arts in 1976 and working toward a doctorate degree. Vogel found her passion at the intersection of feminism and drama and planned to present a dissertation on the topic. In 1981, however, though Vogel had completed all requirements to receive a Ph.D. at Cornell, she left before completing her final doctoral thesis. From there, Vogel pursued a career as a playwright — by 1998, Vogel had won the Pulitzer Prize in Drama for her play How I Learned to Drive. After years as a celebrated playwright and professor at Brown University, Vogel chose to return to Cornell his spring and present Indecent as her doctoral thesis to complete her Ph.D.

Despite its austere presentation, Indecent is deep and complex; it recounts the production of the 1906 drama God of Vengeance, the story of a Jewish brothel owner’s daughter falling in love with one of his prostitutes, originally written in Yiddish by Polish-Jewish writer Sholem Asch. The simplicity of the concert reading — it lacked elaborate props, set, and costuming — complemented the multilayered storyline, grounding it in minimalism and candidness. Every member of the production dressed in black and gray, so the actors almost blended into the blackboard behind them.

This fluidity between costume and set expands as the play develops — actors flow between times, places, and characters. At the opening of the play, except for the stage manager Lemml (Theo Black, assistant director for Cornell’s Speech & Debate team and Head Speech Coach for the Cornell University Forensics Team), the actors are introduced in pairs, a male and female in each category: “The Ingenues,” “The Middles” and “The Elders.” This basic, stark labeling of each character provides a solid foundation upon which Vogel builds interweaving, complex narratives as the play progresses. Each actor — again, excepting Lemml, a constant — portrays multiple characters, subtly distinguishing between layers through the use of unique dialects and mannerisms.
The most diverse use of these techniques comes from Nick Fesette grad, who plays The Middle, or Mendel; he drifts between multiple characters, changing his accent and expressions within moments, an expert of delicate differentiation. His counterpart Sarah K. Chalmers (founding member of the Civic Ensemble and the Kitchen Theatre Company in Ithaca) as the female Middle, or Halina, conveys either intense passion or detachedness, depending on her role. Jennifer Herzog’s (teacher, Ithaca College) The Ingenue/Chana consistently meets Chalmers’ emotion with impressive, bright-eyed brashness at every turn, juxtaposing the simmering anger and aching depression of The Ingenue/ Avram conveyed in the performance of Joshua Bastian Cole grad. Prof. Carolyn Goelzer, department of performing and media arts, and David Studwell, former Resident Professional Theatre Associate, boldly punctuate the cast, commanding the stage with their rich voices and personalities as The Elders, Vera and Otto.

Black’s single role of Lemml, however, may be the most moving performance of the production. As a stage manager, Lemml does not frequently play a part in the most passionate or tragic plot points, but his supportive enthusiasm for God of Vengeance and his perseverant belief in it as an important representation of Jewish culture immediately establishes his character as a critical piece of the storyline. Black plays the role with subtlety and grace, skillfully displaying the power and persistence of cultural representation in times of tragedy.

Perhaps the most stunning aspect of Indecent is its bilingual dialogue — just as seamlessly as the actors drift between characters, the lines drift between Yiddish and English. Sometimes, the audience receives a translation from the titles projected on the backdrop; however, thanks to the actors’ powerful performances, this assistance is largely unnecessary. The same God of Vengeance scenes are performed throughout the play in both languages, the significance of each performance intensifying as the actors’ emotions deepen, and the meaning of the dialogue becomes understandable in the delivery alone.

The significance of the use of Yiddish, however, surpasses that of putting on an impressive performance. In all of its layers, Indecent deals with the battle for honest cultural representation and even more uniquely, the inter-cultural argument for what constitutes this honesty. The characters struggle with the contrast between the idea of a free America in the early 20th century and the reality of the corporate and legal pressures to censor “indecent” expression of Jewish and queer cultures. Vogel’s play is an artful, emotional display of the significant exposure of a lost culture, the fluidity of passion and tragedy, and the struggles of destruction and reconstruction of ethnic identity. With a Cornell University doctorate diploma in hand, Vogel will see her play performed at the Vineyard Theater on Broadway this summer, beginning April 27.

Laura Kern is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]