Ashes to Ashes

Sholem Asch is a young, hungry Jewish playwright who wishes to write stories about his people that show they are just as flawed and human as anyone else.  Members of his own community refuse to let him produce his play, The God of Vengeance, in Yiddish theatre as they perceive his work as anti-Semitic, so he takes the show on the road.  After a long, successful run in Europe, he manages to bring his show to Broadway.  Then trouble really begins for his show.  This is Indecent by Paula Vogel and is currently playing at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Assuredly, this is one of the most difficult and challenging shows I’ve seen produced in quite a while.  Ms Vogel’s script borrows from quite a few genres:  drama, musical, comedy, Yiddish, play in a play, and wraps it in a sheen of surrealism that gives the production an almost dreamlike quality.  This quality is well suited to this show as it is a show of memories of what once happened.  Going along with the motif of memory, which is a tricky thing, after all, some of the events depicted are fiction or embellished.

Ms Vogel’s script well handles the difficulties Asch faced with his script.  Some of the subject matter and themes in The God of Vengeance such as blasphemy, prostitution, and homosexuality are still taboo by today’s standards, let alone in the early 1900s when they would have been viewed as downright abhorrent by society, especially American society.  Even worse was the fact that many missed the point Asch was attempting to make due to only seeing the surface of his work and not digging a little deeper.

Truthfully, this show would test the mettle of any director, but Susan Clement-Toberer rises to the challenge and manages to merge all of this play’s disparate elements into a rock solid production.  Not only has she led her troupe to stellar, nuanced performances, but she was quite creative with her staging and transitions.  From having her actors sitting on stage before the show, still as statues until the lights breathe life into them, to original transitions using song, dance, and music, this show is a master’s level class in direction and storytelling.

Ezra Colon sizzles in his Blue Barn debut as Sholem Asch.  He well essays the young Asch as a youthful, energetic artist bound and determined to tell stories about his people.  One of my favorite moments was the respectful defiance he showed to his leaders and peers at the play’s first reading as he knows what he is saying with his play and is confident that he can find ears receptive to its message, even if those ears are others than his own community.

Colon is equally as impressive as a middle aged Asch and he somehow seems to age decades in a matter of moments with a slump of his shoulders and a haggard, wearied expression on his face.  His whole being seems to wonder if his work is a noble fight or a curse as trouble mounts for the Broadway production.  He finds himself unable to properly defend the work or his troupe due to his limited command of English and things he has witnessed as part of a delegation which have broken him in half spiritually.

Jonathan Purcell provides a powerhouse performance as Lemml.  He works wonders as the shy tailor whose eyes are opened by Asch’s work which he considers a life changing masterpiece from the very beginning.  Watching him tentatively begin a new career as stage manager for The God of Vengeance to growing into a confident, new person who takes full command of the show to keep it alive is a complete and utter joy.

Suzanne Withem is marvelous in multiple roles.  With a pair of glasses and shawl, she is Asch’s supportive, loving wife, Madje, and the first fan of his bold script.  With a change of clothes and a slightly vacuous expression, she becomes Virginia McFadden, an inexperienced performer who has taken the role solely to shock her parents on multiple levels.  But her best role is that of Ruth/Reina, the Yiddish actress who originally portrays Rifkele in the American production of The God of Vengeance.  She is proud of her Yiddish identity and has much in common with her character, right down to knowing the love of another woman.  Her scenes with her lover, Dorothee Nelson/Dine, are some of the best in the show as they are charged with a raw power and honesty and I consider “The Rain Scene” one of the best moments I’ve ever seen mounted on a stage.

Leanne Hill Carlson also lights it up in multiple roles.  But her two best are Freida Neimann, a slightly egotistical and prejudiced actress who finds her characters through intuition as opposed to reading the script and Dorothee Nelson/Dine, the American Manke for The God of Vengeance.  Her chemistry with Ms Withem just ripples with life and she well plays the age old agony of love vs career as the chance to be a Broadway star nearly causes her to sever her relationship with Ruth/Reina as well as subsume her ethnic identity to be more palatable to American audiences.

Strong supporting performances are supplied by D. Scott Glasser, especially as Nakhmen, a Jewish scholar who opposes Asch’s script; Judy Radcliff, as her portrayal of Esther Stockton playing the role of Sarah in The God of Vegeance provides some wonderful levity; and Jonathan Wilhoft who shines as I.L. Peretz, a Polish writer who gently advises Asch to burn his script.  Samuel Bertino, Kate Williams, and Olga Smola also do fine work as a trio of musicians who provide the score of the production.

Steven Williams provides a beautiful, broken down stage with its cracked and crumbling walls and raised platform.  His lights are equally good and quite ethereal at points, especially with the ghostly blue of “The Rain Scene”.  Georgiann Regan’s costumes are spot on.  Fine examples of her work are the quiet elegance of Asch’s suits, the well-made, but lower quality garb for Lemml, and the deadly accurate Hasidic dresses for the women.  Bill Kirby sounds are inspired and his use of artillery effects towards the end had me jump out of my seat.  Melanie Walters provides some unique choreography for scene transitions.

Indecent is the epitome of the Blue Barn mission and makes for an interesting case study into The God of Vengeance. Was it the work that was corrupting or was it corrupted by others once it hit American shores?  What was the play’s truth and did it get lost in the presentation?  Was it a curse or a blessing?  You may ask yourselves these and other questions as you watch the production.  You may not come up with a definitive answer, but you’ll certainly have a lot of food for thought.

Indecent plays at the Blue Barn through April 14.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm with the exception of a 6pm performance on April 7.  The shows for March 23, 30, and April 6 are sold out.  Tickets are $35 ($30 for seniors) and are available at www.bluebarn.org or at the box office at 402-345-1576.  Due to mature subject matter, this show is not suitable for children.  The Blue Barn is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

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The Weight of Faith and Secrets

On a stormy night, Confederate solider, Captain Caleb DeLeon, returns home (a wonderfully gutted manor designed by Jeffery Stander) shortly after the Confederacy’s surrender at Appomattox.  He finds the family’s major-domo (and freed slave), Simon, still guarding the house.  Later joined by another former family slave, John, the three men realize it is Passover and have a traditional Jewish seder in which secrets are revealed in Matthew Lopez’s gripping drama, The Whipping Man, now playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

Lopez’s script is one of the most thought provoking pieces of drama I’ve seen produced in a very long time.  It asks the audience questions of identity, what it really means to be free and to be a slave, the cost of secrets, and the price of faith.  Director Stephen Nachamie expertly navigates the multiple layers and themes of the show with well paced, skillful direction and has culled some powerful performances from his three actors.

Andy Prescott gives a fine accounting of himself in his debut performance at the Playhouse as Caleb DeLeon.  As DeLeon, Prescott demonstrates a great understanding of the use of body language as his character starts the show with a severely gangrenous left leg.  Every step had the audience wincing with him as he shuddered, gasped, and groaned from the pain.  Prescott is simultaneously sympathetic and unlikable as the former Confederate solider.  In some ways, he is more a slave than Simon and John as he is imprisoned by his culture, his cowardice, and his immaturity.  Yet he also has the soul of a poet and not as ingrained in the mindset of slavery as some of his contemporaries.

Prescott has a wonderful speaking voice which is capable of some very beautiful nuances.  This is especially crucial to his role as DeLeon is confined to a chair for the bulk of the play due to the amputation of his leg. But  I also thought that gift of voice could have been put to better use in some of the more dramatic moments.  A couple of poignant scenes seemed slightly too underplayed  and could have used a wider range of expression and emotion.

As Simon, Carl Brooks demonstrates complete mastery of his craft with a meticulously detailed performance.  Brooks’ presence is incredible as he fills the room with warmness, humility, and humanity.  Brooks’ Simon was brought up in Judaism as part of this household and he is very devout in that faith.  When he realizes that it is Passover, he decides to improvise a Jewish seder (Passover meal) which now means more to him than ever before since he is finally free and now has a true kinship with and understanding of his spiritual brethren on the night of the Exodus.

Brooks’ performance is flawless.  He ably moves from beat to beat, switching between joy, anger, pity, frustration, and concern on the turn of a dime.  Brooks also expertly handles the Hebrew pronunciation and possesses a fine singing voice as demonstrated during the seder.

Luther Simon’s cynically happy-go-lucky essaying of John brought a unique combination of lightness and darkness to the play.  As John, Simon presents a front of being jokey and lackadaisical.  But this front only serves to hide a very deep-seated hatred of his former life as a slave and his sense of betrayal by Caleb during a previous incident with the unseen whipping man.  Although he is now a free man, John is more of a slave than ever.  He is enslaved by  the bottle, by lying, by greed, and he is imprisoned in Richmond due to a life altering choice.  In turns, Simon is amusing and haunting.

Mounting a drama of this type requires a colossal amount of energy on the parts of the actors.  This is especially true for this show as each actor has enough dialogue for a one man show and must work his way through innumerable beats and moments.  This can severely tire a performer and was a bit noticeable in tonight’s show as it took a bit for the actors to really get going and their energy started to flag a bit at the end.  This in no way shortchanged this powerful tale which could be one of the finest dramas mounted this theatre season.

“This is who we are,” says Simon at one point.  And who they are was not determined by what they were born into, but rather by the choices that lead the characters to the climax of this sensational drama.

The Whipping Man will be performed at the Omaha Community Playhouse until November 16.  Performances are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm.  The show deals with sensitive subject matter and contains some adult language.  It is not recommended for children.  Tickets cost $36 ($22 for students).  Contact the box office at 402-553-0800 or visit http://www.omahaplayhouse.com.  The Omaha Playhouse is located at 6915 Cass Street in Omaha, NE.