Actress Elyse Edelman, a Glendale native, will perform in a Milwaukee Chamber Theatre production about a real-life troupe of Jewish actors in the early 20th century.
The Tony-award winning play “Indecent” runs March 11-27, 2022. Jewish community sponsors of the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre production include the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, the Stahl Center for Jewish Studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and the Nathan and Esther Pelz Holocaust Education Resource Center and Jewish Museum Milwaukee, both programs of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.
The New York Times has called “Indecent” “superbly realized and remarkably powerful.”
“Indecent” is a play within a play that is based on “God of Vengeance” by Yiddish novelist, dramatist and essayist Sholem Asch. Asch’s play opened on Broadway in 1923, and, in an explosive moment in theatrical history, it was shut down for alleged obscenities.
Edelman, 32, said that playing a Jewish actress in “Indecent” is the highlight of her 15 years working in theater. “I have never told my own story on stage,” said Edelman, who attended Milwaukee Jewish Day School and Nicolet High School. “This is one of the first places where I get to bring all of myself on stage, my Jewish self.”
The story centers around Yiddish theater, which is in her blood, Edelman said. “My great uncles and other relatives were musicians and performers in the Yiddish theater. This project means more to me than almost anything I have ever done because I am telling my family’s story on stage.”
Berkowitz advised Broadway
Joel Berkowitz, a professor and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is a dramaturg for the Milwaukee production. He served as Yiddish consultant on four previous stage productions of “Indecent,” including its run on Broadway in 2017.
“Indecent” premiered at the Yale Repertory Theater in 2015. It was created by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman, who is credited as director and writer. Taichman won the Tony award for best direction of a play in 2017.
Berkowitz is well acquainted with Taichman and her graduate work at Yale University, which led to the creation of “Indecent.” A Yiddish theater historian and translator, Berkowitz has helped with the accents and translation of Yiddish in prior versions of “Indecent.” “It’s not just literally what the words and phrases are, but where they fit in the culture. I consult on who Sholem Asch was and on some of the characters who are real and fictional in the play.”
“Indecent” recounts the American and European response to “God of Vengeance” through the first five decades of the 20th century. The plot of “God of Vengeance” revolves around a love affair between a prostitute and the virgin daughter of the brothel’s owner. Yekel is a devout Jewish father who runs a brothel, only, he insists, to raise enough money for his daughter’s dowry.
Edelman plays Halina who performs as Manke, the actress in the theater troupe who is considered to be in her prime. Manke is referred to as “the beauty of Yekel’s stable.” She is in love with Rifkele, an ingenue. Written in the early 1900s, “God of Vengeance” is said to have presented the first lesbian kiss on an American stage.
“God of Vengeance” was one of the first Yiddish plays on Broadway that was translated to English. But as the entire cast bowed one night, they were arrested on charges of obscenity, indecency and immorality and successfully prosecuted.
Berkowitz has studied the Polish-born Asch, the original creator of “Indecent,” who was well known in the Jewish world. “He was a very prolific writer and an activist, an important figure in Jewish organizations like the Joint Distribution Committee. He had an incredibly active and significant life.”
Asch lived in the U.S., France, London and Israel. “His outlook and literature is a part of what the play is about,” Berkowitz said.
“God of Vengeance” premiered in 1907 in Germany. It became the first play to be translated from Yiddish and professionally staged throughout Europe. It was hailed on the continent for its rebuttal of religious hypocrisy and its honest, joyous depiction of a same-sex relationship. “In Germany, it was a sensation and its director and star were major figures. It entered the repertory very quickly,” Berkowitz said.
“The subject matter is fairly edgy, but no one in 15 years was looking to shut it down,” he said. “Until it gets to Broadway in 1923, the play made some enemies. The arrest of the actors is rather a dramatic moment in theater history and the first amendment and freedom of expression.”
“Many of those actors never acted again,” Edelman said. “They left to go back to Poland and died in the Holocaust. The play honors those who brought the ‘God of Vengeance’ to the stage — and those who paid for it, in some cases, with their lives.”
How to go
When: March 11-27, 2022
Where: By the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre at the Cabot Theatre in Milwaukee
Tickets: 414-291-7800 or MilwaukeeChamberTheatre.org/Indecent. Check with theater for COVID-19 precautionary requirements.