A Yiddish play by Sholem Asch that was shocking in its time has been revived and is being staged at La Mama by the New Yiddish Rep around the corner from where the play first opened in 1907. “God of Vengeance” went on to be staged on Broadway in 1923 and the lesbian kiss between two women led to the arrest of the entire cast (later reversed on appeal), and the play has tantalized those interested in Yiddish theater. Earlier this year “Indecent,” about the creating of “God of Vengeance,” was staged off-Broadway and is reported to be headed for Broadway.
Now we have the original, which still has a controversial kick to it, no longer for the kiss, but for the subject of a pious, domineering Jewish brothel owner trying to keep his daughter pure and buying her a torah as a symbol of her piety and purity. The production, directed by Eleanor Reissa, is in Yiddish with easy to follow English super titles.
Shane Baker gives a strong performance as Yekel Tchaptchovitch, the father, and director Reissa also acts the role of Sarah, Yekel’s wife, who once worked as a prostitute, a fact that their daughter Rifkele (Shayna Schmidt) has learned. Rifkele‘s life is so constricted that she is filled with resentment and yearns to break away. Thus she is primed for the come-on that her friend in the downstairs brothel, prostitute Manke (Melissa Weisz), gives her, leading to their embracing and kissing. Manke is involved in a plot to lure Rifkele into the profession in a scheme organized by a corrupt couple hoping to open a larger enterprise of their own.
But the most morally corrupt person in the tale is really Reb Eli, a rabbi played slimily by the excellent David Mandelbaum. Although he assumes that Rifkele has probably already lost her virtue, he covers this up in order to promote her marriage to an eligible man who doesn’t know he is being hoodwinked. The rabbi’s motive is to get money attached to the match-making. Ultimately, it is the father who won’t lie and denounces his daughter, even though when pressed for an answer she says she doesn’t know whether she lost her innocence.
While women kissing on stage is no big deal these days, there is enough in the play to still upset those offended by figures tied to religious passion shown in the way they are presented here. Although there is quite a bit of repetition in parts, the play still works as high drama, and the cast does a first-rate job in bringing the characters and situations to life with plenty of turbulence.
The New Yiddish Rep has performed a service in giving audiences who have heard of this iconic play but have never had a chance to see it staged the opportunity to view and evaluate it, as well as to see what the fuss was all about. At La Mama, 74A East 4th Street. Reviewed December 26, 2016.