LAWRENCE – It's almost as if Henry Bial spent his whole career preparing to direct “Indecent,” which runs March 20-29 at the University of Kansas.
A professor and chairman of the Department of Theatre & Dance, Bial is the author of “Playing God: The Bible on the Broadway Stage” (2015) and “Acting Jewish: Negotiating Ethnicity on the American Stage and Screen” (2005, both from University of Michigan Press). His interest in Jews on stage is why KU is one of the first to produce playwright Paula Vogel’s not-quite-musical, which premiered in 2015 and dramatizes the cause celebre created by the first lesbian kiss on a Broadway stage nearly a century ago. The real-life play within the play — Sholem Asch’s “The God of Vengeance” — was written for the Yiddish theatre, so the whole thing is squarely in Bial’s wheelhouse.
“As a director, you can be motivated by lots of different things,” Bial said. “Sometimes, I've read a play and never seen it, and the only way I get to see it is if I mount it myself. Other times, I see a play and think, ‘I can improve upon it.’ But this was different: I saw the New York production, wonderfully directed by Rebecca Taichman, and I was blown away. After 30 years in the business, I didn't realize I could be that moved by a performance, and I thought, ‘I want to share this with our students and with our audience here in Lawrence.’”
It helped, Bial added, that the theatre & dance department “made a conscious effort this season to do more contemporary work, but also work that speaks to issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. And this piece is both those things. And because it is a quasi-period piece, it's that rare opportunity where we can do something very current, very much about queer issues, about ethnicity issues, about immigration issues, but also the design students have a chance to work with period material. We get to have our cake and eat it, too.”
Last but not least, “Indecent” is a love letter to the theatre itself, Bial said, both in the story it tells and in the highly theatrical way it is performed. Seven actors play nearly 40 roles in total, along with a live band of local Lawrence musicians. With five songs sung by the cast and choreographed by dance student Maya Gold, and underscoring throughout, Bial said he has taken to calling the show “not not a musical.” Most of the music is in the traditional style of klezmer, and Stephanie Zelnick, a clarinetist and School of Music professor, provided her expertise to enhance the production.
Then there are the linguistic issues inherent in the script, which requires coaching a young cast with no Yiddish-language experience to speak and sing a fair bit of the Eastern European Jewish dialect. Language is a crucial motif in “Indecent,” and Bial said he would not have taken on the project without the support of his KU colleague Renee Perelmutter, director of the KU Jewish Studies Program. Perelmutter, a Yiddish and Slavic language expert with family ties to Yiddish theatre, has coached the cast in pronunciation and consulted on many of the design elements.
While there is some Yiddish (and a tiny bit of German, French, Spanish and Chinese) in the script, Bial emphasizes that “Indecent” is performed primarily in English, with explanatory titles projected onto the set when needed. Audiences need not understand any Yiddish to understand and enjoy it.
“This has been among the most collaborative projects that I've worked on,” Bial said. “There are so many moving parts ... between the choreographer and the musicians, the designers, the actors bringing their own concrete contributions, Renee's work on the language, and Stephanie’s assistance with the music. Everyone has approached it with just a wonderful sense of energy. People really plug into the show for a variety of reasons: Because of the ethnic heritage, because of the queer-positive message and representation, and because of the theatre-history element in telling the story of the first romantic kiss between two women on Broadway. It's a play about immigration, and the difficulties of adapting from one culture to another; how immigrants choose to represent themselves, or how others represent them. It checks many, many boxes for us.”
Photo: Choreographer Maya Gold works with the cast of "Indecent," which runs March 20-29 in the William Inge Theatre at the University of Kansas. Credit: Courtesy University Theatre