(Photo by Chaz D Photography, courtesy of American Stage)
American Stage opened its 46th season Oct. 4 with “Indecent” by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, a perfect fit for Tampa Bay’s longest-running professional theatre company.
The Jewish, LGBTQ+ tale is billed as “a love story worth fighting for,” and it has been for 100 years. “Indecent” recounts the 1923 censorship of playwright Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” which featured the first lesbian kiss on Broadway and resulted in convictions of obscenity for its producer and cast.
“A play that recounts the fiery controversy sparked by a lesbian kiss, ‘Indecent’ is a love story at its core,’” American Stage’s synopsis reads. “A brothel owner’s daughter and a sex worker discover passion on stage, and our more-than-disapproving characters are what make the rest of this play, well, indecent. A deeply moving and hopeful play inspired by true events, it stands as a grounding work of Jewish culture.”
The regional premiere is directed by Helen R. Murray, the company’s producing artistic director. She announced it would open the 2023-24 season earlier this year, but it wasn’t the first time the play made headlines in Florida. A century after “God of Vengeance” was censored for showcasing LGBTQ+ love, a high school production of Vogel’s 2015 work was seemingly canceled for the same reason.
Jacksonville’s Douglas Anderson School of Performing Arts pulled the show in January, drawing the ire of free speech groups nationwide. A spokesperson told the Associated Press the decision was made because it “contains adult sexual dialogue that is inappropriate for student cast members and student audiences.”
He denied it was a response to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay or Trans” law, one of the state’s recent anti-LGBTQ+ laws championed by Governor Ron DeSantis. It restricts the discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.
Vogel, who is Jewish and a lesbian, condemned the decision through the nonprofit PEN America.
“I’m not in the business of politics, but whatever that board says in terms of statements that they’ve released about why they’re doing this, they’re putting sheep’s clothing over a wolf. And the wolf is Governor DeSantis,” she said.
“The faculty and the administration have principally been silenced,” Vogel continued. “If I were to take that long view back of ‘Indecent’ — what was I saying about the ‘God of Vengeance?’ — [it’s that] censorship of the arts is always the first step towards totalitarianism, and ultimately, towards genocide.”
It’s a weight American Stage understands. Murray described the production as “a love story wrapped in a conversation about art, censorship and the power to persevere,” adding that the show “does one of my very favorite things that theatre can do— it makes us laugh and ache at the same time because the hope we feel is monumental.”
The show has also captivated openly gay actor Michael Raver for some time. He saw the original production in New York and in American Stage’s version plays Lemml, a tailor turned stage manager.
“My character is sort of the audience’s lens through which this entire story gets told,” he explains. “I’m the only actor in the show who just plays one person, everyone else shifts into someone else — and so from a certain point of view, the play is also about this man’s journey.”
Raver had auditioned for other “Indecent” roles in the past, but this production marked his first vying for Lemml. He drew inspiration from his grandmothers, both women of Jewish, Eastern European descent, and says working with the entire cast and crew has been “delicious.”
The actor also praises Murray’s direction and American Stage’s overall vision, noting that “Florida, as a state politically, is very complicated.”
“While St. Pete has been forward-thinking and inclusive, a lot of the surrounding cities might not necessarily be that way,” he says. “It’s a tense part of the country, and I commend Helen and American Stage for doing something that might result in some of their audience being a little uncomfortable.”
It’s not just for the sake of doing so, he adds, but for potentially changing hearts and minds. It’s one of the reasons he thinks the show resonates with LGBTQ+ and ally audiences.
“Paula Vogel charges the audience with how ridiculous it is to hate someone or to be afraid of someone based on their ethnicity, their culture or in this case how they identify sexually,” Raver says. “It’s two women sharing a kiss. A kiss. So my hope is that people come to see the show and are shocked that something this innocent caused this level of a social earthquake.”
While not explicitly expressed in the “Indecent” script, Raver also says his version of Lemml is on the LGBTQ+ spectrum.
“That’s what’s really great about doing a play like this,” he explains. “There are things and choices that we’re making that are divergent from the original version — and it’s one of the beautiful things about this art form: it’s open to interpretation.”
He also calls “Indecent” an “emotionally expensive play,” one that will resonate with its actors and audience well after the curtain call.
“I feel passionately about people seeing this play,” Raver says. “I don’t want there to be a dry eye in the audience when we’re done. I want people to laugh — the play is very funny — and I want them to come and be moved.”
“Indecent” plays at American Stage Wednesday and Thursdays at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sundays at 2 p.m. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit AmericanStage.org.