Pittsburgh Public Theater season includes two hits with Jewish themes
'Indecent,' 'Irving Berlin' premiering at Pittsburgh Public

Pittsburgh Public Theater season includes two hits with Jewish themes

The lineup includes “Indecent,” the story behind a show by Jewish playwright Sholem Asch, and “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin,” which traces the life of the Jewish composer.

O’Reilly Theater. (Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater)
O’Reilly Theater. (Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater)

The Pittsburgh Public Theater is bringing two shows to the city for their newest season that are sure to resonate with the Jewish community.

The seven-show lineup includes “Indecent,” which tells the story of a theater troupe as it deals with censorship and cries of obscenity when performing a show by Jewish playwright Sholem Asch, and “Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin,” which combines music and theater to trace the life of Jewish composer Irving Berlin, famous for hundreds of songs including “God Bless America.”

The Public Theater also welcomed a new artistic director in August. Marya Sea Kaminski, who is coming to the city after serving as associate artistic director at Seattle Repertory Theater, said part of her mission is to “welcome more Pittsburgh into Pittsburgh Public.”

As the theater moves forward, said Kaminski, she hopes to tell stories “with ideas that resonate with the communities and represent those communities.”

“Indecent,” written by Paula Vogel, directed by Risa Brainin and based on true events, follows a theater troupe as it performs Asch’s play, “God of Vengeance.” Asch’s play was widely championed in Europe and then New York, where it was performed in Yiddish. But, once translated to English and brought to Broadway, the troupe was met with cries of obscenity and eventually efforts to ban the play.

“Indecent” is a very “meta-theatrical experience,” Brainin said, that focuses both on how theater is made and issues of censorship, prejudice and inclusion.

Risa Brainin, director of “Indecent.” (Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater)
Starting in the early 1900s and ending in the early 1950s, the play spans a significant amount of history, adding a historic backdrop to themes that are still relevant today, Brainin said.

“I think the play can be a call to action,” Brainin continued, encouraging audience members to examine their own communities and say, “Wow, are we shutting people down? Are we trying to sanitize our communities? Trying to get rid of people who are not like us? Trying to stop stories from being told that aren’t our stories?”

Opening in April, the cast includes only seven actors for 32 total parts, meaning each person plays multiple roles. Brainin said this adds to the experience because the audience members watch as the actors transform along with their roles and the design forces people to think about “the roles that we all play.”

In the show, there is a trio of musicians that play everything from musical theater to klezmer music. The actors, though always speaking English, add an accent when they are representing speaking in English and take away the accent when they are representing speaking in Yiddish to emphasize the ease of using their native language in a foreign country.

Hershey Felder. (Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater)
“Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin” also focuses on themes of immigration and adjusting to a new country, telling the story of the famous Jewish songwriter who immigrated to the United States with his family as a child.

Berlin wrote more than 1,000 songs, including “White Christmas,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Anything You Can Do,” throughout his career and is credited by many people as giving the “country a sound.”

Created in 2014, the play combines music and theater to give the audience a sense of who Berlin was, Felder said, and “what it means to really be an American, to have come from another country and fully embrace the magic that this country is and be a contributor.”

The play, which will run in December, is driven from Berlin’s “Jewishness,” Felder said, which influenced every part of Berlin’s life, from his father to his time as a busker on the streets of New York.

In his career, Felder has worked for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation to chronicle the oral histories of Holocaust survivors and attended the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, according to a press release from Pittsburgh Public Theater.

The fact that the two plays focus on themes pertinent to today is not a coincidence, according to Kaminski, who hopes to “curate a conversation through entertainment” with this season’s shows. “The best theater creates an intersection between great entertainment and resonant ideas,” she said. PJC

Lauren Rosenblatt can be reached at lrosenblatt@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.
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