God of Vengeance
A classic play of Yiddish theater gets a rare revival at La MaMa.
It's no accident that New Yiddish Rep is producing Sholem Asch's 1907 play God of Vengeance right now. Despite the play's early success, it has been left largely unproduced since its Broadway premiere in 1923 — until becoming the basis for Paula Vogel's Indecent, which ran at the Vineyard Theatre last year and will begin its own Broadway run in April. Now the work has begun to arouse interest for being the first play on Broadway to feature a romantic kiss between two women.
That's a significant theatrical milestone — so theater buffs will certainly want to take in a performance of God of Vengeance at La MaMa before checking out Indecent. But so will fans of Yiddish theater (the play is written and performed in Yiddish, with English supertitles), as well as those interested in LGBTQ issues and women's rights. Asch fearlessly wrote about subjects that were rarely encountered onstage. The cast of the 1923 production, in fact, were arrested and jailed for obscenity, one of the subjects of Vogel's play. Though Asch's characters tend to be one-dimensional in a story that seems plucked from the tabloids, his intrepid takes on religion, societal mores, and the evil that men do, still resonate.
Asch set the play in Russia in the early 20th century, but director Eleanor Reissa has blurred the play's time and place and brought it closer to the present. Vicki Davis' costumes include suspendered pants, blue jeans, and headphones, and Davis' set could very well represent the living quarters of a tenement on New York City's Lower East Side. Wherever it is, brothel owner Yankl (Shane Baker) lives there with erstwhile prostitute and current wife Sarah (Reissa) and their teenage daughter, Rifkele (Shayna Schmidt). Yankl runs the bordello downstairs, but he is determined to keep his daughter out of that life. In an attempt to protect her further, he goes to the great expense of having a Torah scroll written and kept in Rifkele's room. But when she leaves home after falling in love with the prostitute Manke (Melissa Weisz), the dream of freeing his daughter from his sordid world comes crashing down.
Asch's story has a sensational quality to it that, when combined with melodramatic scenes, sometimes approaches the comical. This is a distraction in a play whose underlying themes — notable among them, how men mistreat women and children and justify their bad behavior through religion — would benefit from a less lurid approach. In her acting role, Reissa gives a wonderfully nuanced performance as a mother who has reinvented herself and can convincingly wear a mask of respectability, at least until things get heated and her disguise falls away. Reissa directs the 95-minute play with some restraint, but the built-in histrionics can't help bursting into the open now and then.
Indeed, God of Vengeance revels in extravagant theatricality. It's difficult to suppress a grin when Yankl discovers that Rifkele's innocence has been lost and then wildly addresses the Torah scroll: "You, Holy Scroll, I know you are a great God! ... Send down fire to burn me up here where I stand! Open up the earth at my feet and let it swallow me!" These lines and others like them, unfortunately, provoke laughter where it wasn't intended.
But then there's the kiss. Weisz and Schmidt here take the play into another realm as they tenderly touch lips in a quiet scene that feels like cool rain falling on a hot, angry world. Gone is the shock that their intimacy must have once given to audiences, yet that moment makes a lovely counterpoint to the play's male-dominated scenes of cruelty and greed. Baker convincingly shows us a father overwhelmed by a guilt that finds its outlet in rage and violence. And when we learn that the avaricious Reb Eli (played with wanton callousness by David Mandelbaum) cares more about the safety of the scroll than about the welfare of Yankl's daughter, Rifkele and Manke's kiss seems to symbolize the only real love possible in a society filled with self-delusion, selfishness, and deceit.
This depiction of Jewish people as despicably flawed was, and sometimes still is, one of the sharpest criticisms aimed at God of Vengeance. Some audiences have feared that the play could inflame anti-Semitic feelings by depicting Jews so negatively. But despite the story's deep roots in Jewish faith and traditions, this production, much to its credit, allows Asch's characters to take on a universal quality. We see the struggle of a teen to find her identity, the genuine but misguided efforts of a father to make a better life for his child, and the stumbling steps that an economically challenged community takes in its relationship with God. And we see two people falling in love, with a simple kiss.