“Indecent” is Sublime at Kavinoky

In 1906, Warsaw was a city in revolution. The Imperial Russian Army was terrorizing workers.  The city was in recession, a harbinger of things to come. Despite this grim reality, its Jewish community was creating art and celebrating its culture. Playwright  Sholem Asch was staring taboos  in the face with a provocative play of love, defiance, and unbridled sensuality. His ‘God of Vengeance’ told  the story of illicit love between a prostitute and the virginal young daughter of a brothel owner. It shocked the establishment, and enthralled a tailor who made it his life’s work to bring the production to the great capitals of Europe and then to New York where it met its demise.

This is the story within the story of “Indecent,” beautifully constructed by Paula Vogel and elegantly staged at Kavinoky Theatre now to March 29. Presented in collaboration with the Jewish Repertory of WNY, this marks the first theatre company partnership for the Kavinoky, and this is a perfect match stylistically and metaphorically, too.

In brief, this performance is stunning. The cast of 12 takes on multiple roles that make the experience even more robust than it is. Each character carries his own dignity in humbling, strong ways throughout the story that spans more than 50 years and many locations. In a blink, lives change as society struggles along.

Director Kristen Tripp Kelley uses every inch of Kavinoky’s space, from the wings to the house itself; the audience is literally wrapped in this performance. Set designer extraordinaire David King created a multi-layered canvas that transformed the Kav’s stage to the worn and weary European stage houses and war-torn buildings where Jewish culture was kept in secret.  Diane Almeter Jones did magical things with simple props; suitcases were vessels for travel that also became table supports and sign holders. The metaphors aren’t lost, they’re center stage. She dressed the set with scarves that wrapped, concealed, and transformed the actors. Brian Milbrand’s projections used a timeline in English and Yiddish that helped the audience keep pace with change in venue and the span of time. The silent movie-style narration on the projection is engaging, too. All these elements worked silently and seamlessly.

But it’s the cast constantly moving (carefully choreographed by Lynne Kurdziel Formato) cast against a vintage screen backdrop that was tasked to tell Vogel’s intense adaptation. Jordan Levin (last seen as Leo Frank in “Parade”last season at ART of WNY, another intense performance) is on fire as Lemml, the tailor-turned stage manager. His cast mates shine in their multiple roles. Arin Lee Dandes, Aleks Malejs, Adam Yellen, Peter Palmisano, Debbie Pappas Sham, Saul Elkin, and Matt Witten flex as ‘Vengeance’ cast members and others who  are both beguiled and outraged by immorality and expressions of love. The musicians are on stage, too, and weave into the cast as well. Watch the arch of violinist Maggie Zindle’s brow as the works her way around the stage, and the playfulness Megan Callahan has in toodling  klezmer tunes on her clarinet. Musical director Joseph Donohue III doubles as the accordionist, and Bassist Benjamin Levitt rounds out the sound.

There are some gorgeous moments here; some repeat for effect, like when fine ash falls from under actors’ coat sleeves in key sequences, and a soft fall of rain welcomes spring and a new day.

Good things happen when the right partners come together in strength and shared vision. The Kav and and JRT prove this, on stage and off. The Kav’s Executive Artistic Director Loraine O’Donnell and JRT’s founder Saul Elkin set the bar a little higher for theatre company collaboration with this one.

Before the show, O’Donnell previewed the Kav’s 41st season. Two musicals (“Something Rotten” and “Rock of Ages” ) light up the season. The British mystery “The Woman in Black” returns to this stage. The classic “Pride and Prejudice” will take a new spin (if you liked Irish Classical Theatre Company’s treatment of “Sense and Sensibility” last season, this adaptation was penned by the same playwright), and “People, Places, and Things, a powerful story about addiction closes out the 2021 season. O’Donnell knows how to keep an audience engaged while taking some calculated chances, too. All good.

“Indecent” runs 95 minutes without intermission and is onstage until March 29. Find tickets and details here.


“Visiting Mr. Green”. . .Again at Jewish Repertory Theatre

Saul Elkin and Nick Stevens in “Visiting Mr. Green” at Jewish Repertory Theatre of Buffalo.

Jewish Repertory Theatre’s 15th season, aptly named A Sentimental Journey, begins next week with a flashback to its first season. “Visiting Mr. Green”, written by corporate executive-turned writer Jeff Baron, was part of JRT’s first season, and it’s back in this season’s line up, with Saul Elkin reprising the role of Mr. Green. Thinking back on his first time in the role, Elkin reflects, “I think I was much more taken with the comedic side of Mr. Green himself. “This time around however I am much more moved and engaged by the ‘reality’ of the story: an elderly widower, lonely and alone and caught up in the bitterness that  comes from his own Jewish orthodoxy,” he says.

It’s this wistful, thoughtful quality that has makes “Visiting Mr. Green” endure. It’s been produced hundreds of times in more than 47 countries since it was written 20 years ago. “I think the reason “Visiting Mr. Green” has traveled so far and lasted so long is that it’s a good story, with characters you care about, including some characters you get to know, but never see,” Baron says.

“Visiting Mr. Green” is a two-hander: Mr. Green has an unlikely meeting with a younger man, portrayed this time around by Nick Stevens. They’re not friends, they’re not family, but somehow they connect. With light funny moments, tension, surprise, and finally acceptance, they learn about each other and themselves through the prism of shared experience.

It’s a very human story, Elkin says, “between a feisty senior citizen and a young man that begins being very contentious and evolves into a warm and loving relationship.”  

Baron’s perspective is similar. “Beyond that,” he says, “since it’s about families, and what we do when close relatives are different from what we hoped they’d be. It’s a situation everyone knows and wrestles with.”

At the heart of this story is the grappling with the oft-taboo topic of sexuality, how it’s understood (or not), and how generations deal with new norms and values. For Baron, this meant reaching back two generations, to his grandmother. “Before I started writing, I spoke at length to quite a few men who shared various aspects of Mr. Green’s history. I always do that kind of research, because I want my characters to be as realistic as possible,” Baron says. He drew on his grandmother’s language, viewpoints, and somewhat isolated world as inspiration for Mr. Green himself.

Elkin connects to this generational push-pull. He says, “The world has certainly changed but old attitudes and values have not completely disappeared…yet.  In addition to the strength of the story and the telling quality of the play, I think it raises issues that continue to be relevant.”

Elkin credits director Steve Vaughan for his perspective on the production, on “emphasizing the tensions that are at the heart of the play,” he says, maybe with a bit of modern Chekhov influence, too. “I still think there is lots of funny stuff, but there is also a very human and touching story, Elkin concludes.

Visiting Mr. Green opens at the Jewish Repertory Theatre on October 19 and runs until November i2. Learn more about the season and purchase tickets here.

Promotional consideration paid for by the Theatre Alliance of Buffalo.