Ethnic Theater - Jewish
"God of Vengeance"
produced off-Broadway by Marvell Rep
“God of Vengeance” is special, not only for its place in my heart, but, more importantly, for its place in the annals of Jewish theater. Written by Sholem Asch in the early 1900s, this devastating drama noted, for the first time, the existence of an amoral Jewish underground where cynicism and greed prevailed. In short, it sets out to prove that Jews are as human and fallible as anybody else.
The story deals with a Jewish brothel owner, who struggles to keep his own daughter “pure”—hoping to gain her a respectable marriage. But she falls in love with one of her father’s prostitutes, and the two elope. Thus Asch deals with a hitherto unknown, at least theatrically unknown, subject. The existence of Jewish brothels, Jewish prostitutes, Jewish Lesbians—all in a Jewish underground? Was this possible?
Apparently the Jewish community thought not, and Asch and his play were drummed out of his native Poland. (One is reminded of Spinoza, living in Amsterdam of the 1600s, who was excommunicated from the Jewish community for his unorthodox views.)
Given the time and the subject, one can indeed imagine the uproar which Asch’s play caused. How dare a writer suggest that such a world existed, then or ever?
But Asch took his play to the noted director Max Reinhardt in Berlin, who in 1907 mounted a wildly successful production. Originally written in Yiddish, “God of Vengeance” would be translated into many tongues, playing throughout Europe.
But it surfaced in America in the 1920s, again causing controversy. A group called the Society for the Suppression of Vice lodged a complaint, and the entire New York cast was arrested. Ultimately charges would be dismissed, and “God of Vengeance” continued its rocky way.
In 1974, director Ran Avni offered “God of Vengeance” (translated into English by Joseph Landis) as his opening play when he founded the Jewish Repertory Theatre in New York City. For this reviewer, the play was duly noted in my doctoral thesis on the JRT. Because I missed this and earlier incarnations, I would follow every production over the years whenever the play surfaced.
Why? Because “God of Vengeance” is more than shocking. Not only does it rock the very foundations of religious values, but it takes a remarkable look at human behavior, Jewish or otherwise.
And now, to this reviewer’s delight, the play again comes to life, produced by the off-Broadway company Marvell Rep. Though the story no longer has the power to shock in these free-wheeling times, it is a respectable production, with a solid cast. Particularly effective are the “downstairs” scenes where the high-spirited “girls” enjoy cavorting in the spring rain. But director Lenny Leibowitz should have toned down his lead Sam Tsoutsouvas, who delivers most lines with a high-pitched scream. This performance is not worthy of Tsoutsouvas’s usually excellent work.
But we must be grateful that Marvell Rep keeps history alive, as this production reminds us, once again, of the seminal role played by “God of Vengeance.” Students of Jewish theater and its history will appreciate this effort.
Oct. 20, 2012