Review: ‘Indecent’ at Baltimore Center Stage

This production of 'Indecent' is a co-production with both Arena Stage and Kansas City Repertory, so the entire cast has had time to settle into these complex roles. The end result being that here at Baltimore Center Stage, 'Indecent' is an incredibly moving experience.

As presented at Baltimore Center Stage, Indecent is a timely, timeless story, about a sexuality, about a religion, about a people, about all people. Audiences will leave this production emotionally drained: simultaneously ashamed of our nation’s history, proud of those who stood against oppression, and hopeful for the future.

As the audience enters the Pearlstone Theater within the Baltimore Center Stage complex, the dimly lit, but exposed scenic design by Jack Magaw sets the stage for the evening ahead. Viewers are transported to the backstage area of a historic theater, dusty, with crates and ropes scattered about. The wooden structural beams will serve to focus attention as they shift throughout the evening framing the action at critical moments. Projection Designer Jeffrey Cady has subtitles in both English and Hebrew displayed in clever ways, helping to orient the audience to location, time, and often indicating when the characters are speaking different languages.

In what will prove to be a near-perfect performance, Ben Cherry as Lemml, begins the evening by wisely explaining to the full-house crowd that during Indecent actors will play many different roles. He goes on to highlight the male and female pairings who will divide the characters by age range: two actors playing the older characters, two performing the middle-aged roles, and finally two younger performers who will play the youthful ingenues. There are also three performers, John Milosich, Maryn Shaw, and Alexander Sovronsky who not only play ensemble roles but who also display their very capable skills as musicians during the evening. Sovronksy is also the music director for this production of Indecent and wrote some original music for it.

The chronology of Indecent is vast and complex, yet Playwright Paula Vogel masterfully keeps the script coherent and engaging. Very early on, the audience learns that a youthful Sholom Ash (wonderfully brought to life by Max Wolkowitz) has written a play in Yiddish called The God of Vengeance. Despite his young wife thinking it is brilliant, Polish investors are not so sure. The God of Vengeance is set in a brothel and prominently features a lesbian storyline that ends with the desecration of the Torah. Lemmel, a poor tailor, who happened to be at the first reading, champions Ash’s play and when the young playwright eventually manages to mount a production in Germany, he is hired as the stage manager, remaining with the play for years.

The audience watches as successive productions of The God of Vengeance find success throughout Europe. Meanwhile, the two actresses playing the lesbian roles begin to experience their love outside the context of the play as well. Both Susan Lynskey and Emily Shackelford shine with their ability to differentiate between their roles in the play and the “real-world” relationship between the actresses. Shackleford also must play the second actress hired for the role of the younger lover – after her predecessor finds it difficult to learn English for the Broadway premiere. That transformation from one actress to the next happens right before the audience’s eyes and Emily Shackelford handles it magnificently, using just enough changes in physical stature and movement without going into caricature.

Needless to say, the Broadway debut of The God of Vengeance has issues and the harsh criticism of the play mirrors the rise in anti-Semitism around the world. Victor Raider-Wexler, as the famous Yiddish actor who hopes this production will make him a household name gives a powerful but subtle performance. When he and his onstage wife, Susan Rome, have to repeatedly reenact the same final moments of The God of Vengeance they do so in dramatic fashion, as if this is a common requirement of stage acting. Similarly, Jake Walker makes each of his middle-aged characters individuals, easily distinguishable throughout the shifting timeline.

Director Eric Rosen keeps the action on stage intimate which serves to bring the audience closer into the production and performances. Even without that, it would be impossible not to experience how relevant Indecent is to our modern societal climate, but that immediacy ratchets up the emotional context especially at some critical moments late in the show. At the same time, the work of Costume Designer Linda Roethke and Wig Designer Annie Nesmith firmly roots the narrative in its historical period. The lighting design by Josh Epstein and the sound design from Andre Pluess are unobtrusive and effective. In particular, the transitions to musical numbers feel natural for a play that is primarily a dramatic piece. Choreography by Erika Chong Shuch is organic and feels very authentic to the culture and time in which Indecent is set.

This production of Indecent is a co-production with both Arena Stage and Kansas City Repertory, so the entire cast has had time to settle into these complex roles. The end result being that here at Baltimore Center Stage, Indecent is an incredibly moving experience that resonates with modern audiences, drawing a clear line between our somber history and the more contemporary issues still affecting society.

Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes with no intermission

Indecent plays through February 24, 2019, at Baltimore Center Stage – 700 North Calvert Street in Baltimore, Maryland 21202. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 332-0033, or purchase them online.