By Paula Vogel
Directed by Julia Listengarden
Choreography by Christoper Niess
Staring Emmitt Williams, Forest Stringfellow, and Mia Woods
Theater UCF, Orlando, FL
Carl F. Gauze
Back a century ago, there was a vibrant Yiddish theater scene in Europe and America. Successful shows would travel the circuit from Warsaw to Minsk and even to New York. A common language and a sensibility tied them together until the Nazis nearly succeeded in their hatred of the Yiddish. Into that world we find young Sholem Asch (Stringfellow) with his new, provocative script focusing on a lesbian relationship. We meet him at a first reading in the home of the producer, and the reading ends badly. The readers are offended, they refuse to finish reading, and yet the director is impressed and encourages young Ascher to press on. It took a few years, but Asch is encouraged to press on. The show eventually opens and becomes a big hit in Europe. The company moves the show to New York, as much to dodge the Nazis as to make it big on Old Broadway. There, the religious types in New York get their undies in a bunch and attempt to throw the cast and writer into jail, all in the name of freedom. Ascher eventually toned down the racier scenes for performances in the sticks like Baltimore and Philly and still got arrested. Sometimes you must suffer for art.
There’s a lot of hot button sexual politics in the show, and they are handled fairly and openly. And while there’s nothing explicit on the stage, I could see a few evangelicals harumphing around. The backdrop is wooden lathe wall with lights and projections indicating time and place. The stage has a lip and low, long runway giving the cast room to fling bodies and ideas around. Stringfellow is earnest and excitable, and we can see the toll taken for sticking to his ideals. It was clear to him the more people offended the better the underlying story. Chana (Woods) and Vera animate the lesbian couple, on stage and in life, and when arrested they are treated with respect in the story, even as the moralists harrumph and bully them. We also see the messy behind-the-scenes process of writing and developing a stage show. In the days before broadcasting, shows were tinkered with endlessly before they premiered in the big cities. Here’s a fascinating look at theater history and the inner mechanics of production and publicity.