Art Matters: Thoughts on Indecent – July 28, 2017

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Despite the play’s title, Indecent, written by Paula Vogel, is about the purity of the Arts, and the struggle to maintain its integrity in the face of intolerance. Issues of antisemitism, homophobia and censorship in the midst of political and social uncertainty resonate throughout the play, and are as relevant in 2017 as they were in 1923, when much of the play takes place. I’m not as frequent a playgoer as I probably should be, as I tend to gravitate towards musicals (in fact, this is the first Broadway play I’ve seen this year thus far, as my fixation on Sunset Blvd. commandeered my theater going attention for the entirety of its limited run), the word of mouth about Indecent piqued my interest, along with my ongoing endeavor to expand my theatrical experiences.

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This experience far exceeded that objective.

The play recounts the controversy surrounding God of Vengeance written by Sholem Asch in 1907, set in a brothel which included a love scene between two women. While popular and accepted across Europe, its Broadway run in 1923 had been deemed obscene, with all those involved with the production arrested and convicted of obscenity. The play runs under two hours (with no intermission), yet the events within span over several decades across Europe and America, telling the impact one play had within world history.

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The overall set design is sparse, with the cast initially seated on the stage, with a trio of musicians – violin, clarinet and accordion – among the actors. Music is interwoven into the play, as underscoring and as commentary to the events unfolding, which enhance the tension. There are projected stage directions that impart to the audience the passage of time to give context to the scenes, both in English and Yiddish, the original language in which God of Vengeance was written. The framework of Indecent starts off as a play within a play, with Lemml, the stage manager, introducing the cast and setting the scene; the projected narration takes over, and the cast inhabit the role of the actors playing the play within the play. There is a raised platform in the middle of the stage on which the actors depict the play, with the surrounding area of the stage acting as the backstage area. The cast is astounding as a whole, imparting humor and anger with equal passion, as conflict over art and acceptance is debated. Language plays an important role as well – while the bulk of the play is spoken in English, the narrative projections tell in which language the characters are speaking, and the cast adjusted accordingly.

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The stage door experience was low key, as not too many people gathered to meet the actors, which was a blessing, as those who waited were able to chat with the actors (or in my case babble quasi-inarticulately, as the conclusion of the play boggled my mind – in a good way) while signing playbills.

The impact of this play will haunt me for days (and weeks) to come, as a gamut of emotions played within me like a symphony: there were moments of levity, outrage and ultimately sadness, as tears fell uncontrollably as the “blinks in time” passed. I was not the only one – several people around me were equally moved. That oft-used saying that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it” (I think that’s how the quote goes) rings true, as current events show that there are some who don’t (or refuse to) learn from history.

Change can only happen if people learn to embrace differences, to unlearn the stereotypes imparted by generations that came before them and to accept the fact that there is infinite complexity in the human race.

Indecent had announced its closing date of June 25, 2017, but word of mouth about the play allowed its run to extend to August 6, 2017. I highly recommend seeing this play, as it is a worthwhile examination of why Art Matters more than ever.

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Abuse of Authority: Thoughts on the staged reading of You Don’t Know How It Feels – April 8, 2017

It’s true – I don’t know how it feels.

I can’t even properly process what I felt when I saw the staged reading of Kelley Blessing’s play You Don’t Know How It Feels, which tackles the issue of child sexual abuse from the victim’s perspective – the loss of innocence, the stigma of shame and (eventual) road to recovery. The conflicting, often confusing emotions associated with such a heinous act is unfathomable to comprehend from an outside perspective, yet there are far too many people who know how this feels. Sexual abuse happens and can happen anywhere and to anyone, regardless of race, gender, or age, yet it is often not discussed in public.

This play aims to break that silence.

I was invited to reading by Kelley, which took place at the Matthew Corozine Studio Theatre presented by Darknight Productions. While I’ve read many of her other works (often as a quasi-dramaturge / editor) and attended a staged reading of a musical she co-wrote (The Sounds of Screams), this would be a totally different experience, as You Don’t Know How It Feels is semi-autobiographical.

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[Disclaimer: Kelley has been a friend of mine for many years, with whom I’ve shared many theatrical experiences as audience members, yet I was unaware of this traumatic incident that happened long before I met her. It had not crossed my mind to ask, and I suppose it’s not something she would willingly share. I’m debating whether or not to follow up this entry with an in-depth interview / discussion about the process of writing this play. Our friendship started with our mutual love of musical theatre (and Sherlock Holmes), and remained jovial through the years, so I would not want to inadvertently trigger any additional trauma (if that’s the right term) by having her revisit those memories. Then again, the purpose of writing this play is to give a voice to the voiceless, so this story needs to be told.]

The play takes place in a middle school gymnasium and focuses on the interactions of high school track teacher Nick McCoe with three of his students – Dena, Sara and Devon, as well as with the principal, Frank Stanley. The interactions between McCoe and his students seem harmless at first, then turns sinister, as he targets Dena, and manipulates her into keeping his subsequent assaults a secret. The resolution in the play is fairly optimistic, as Sara and Devon, Dena’s best friend and boyfriend, respectively, discover the root cause of her mood swings, report their findings to Principal Stanley and McCoe is exposed (no pun intended) for his crimes.

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As it was a staged reading, the actors had scripts in hand, and as it was the first reading, much of the dialogue came across as stage dialogue rather than natural speech. Gabriel Morales perhaps had the most difficult role in playing Mr. McCoe, juggling the Jekyll and Hyde personas of the helpful teacher and manipulative predator with subtle stealth so as to break the façade he created. As Dena, Jadelee Vega had an equally difficult task of portraying the range and depth of emotion required to recount this harrowing experience. The overall design was effective – the set design sparse, the lighting design reflective of Dena’s inner turmoil and the sound design jarring as it should be. While the subject matter was disturbing, it was not overt, as the instances of assault occurred off stage.

There was a talk back with the cast and creative team with the invited audience encouraged to give feedback to the piece. Constructive criticism was presented, along with insight from the cast and creative team with regards to the process of developing the play. There is great potential for this play to have a future in a broader venue, as the issue of sexual assault, especially against children, is a crime gaining attention as victims are coming forward to tell their story, bringing awareness so as to (hopefully) prevent them from happening, and bringing the perpetrators to justice.

This is a start.

If you are a victim of sexual assault or know someone who may be, please contact RAINN at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit www.rainn.org

For more information sexual assault, rape and incest, visit www.joyfulheartfoundation.org