Head Trick Artistic Director Rebecca Maxfield Discusses God of Vengeance

God-of-Vengeance-Poster-WebHead Trick Theatre, under the helm of artistic director Rebecca Maxfield, is making quite a name for themselves by staging some of the more controversial, challenging and politically fueled scripts on the local scene. What makes this fact doubly intriguing is that most of these scripts that are written by and about marginalized and repressed sectors of our society are more than a hundred years old.

“Women and minorities aren’t a modern invention,” explains Maxfield. “We’ve always been here, and in planning a season with the political situation at the forefront of our minds, Head Trick is choosing to put those voices and stories out there.”

Their latest show, God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch, is no exception. Now playing through March 18 at AS220’s Black Box at 95 Empire St, the play ostensibly tells the story of a Jewish brothel owner’s attempts to gain himself a respectable place in Jewish society by commissioning a Torah scroll and marrying off his daughter to a proper Yeshiva student. While the family’s fate hinges on their daughter marrying well, the fact that she is secretly in love with one of the prostitutes in her father’s employ threatens their plans.

This play was brought back into the spotlight last year when Paula Vogel’s Indecent was nominated for a Tony award on Broadway. Vogel’s play dramatized the real events surrounding the 1923 New York production of God of Vengeance, which introduced Broadway’s first lesbian kiss – which also lead to the entire cast being arrested on charges of obscenity.

I had a chance to chat with Maxfield about what drew her to the play, its controversial history, recent revival and the intersectional issues that are still at play today.

Marilyn Busch (Motif): God of Vengeance was written in Poland in 1907 – and originally in Yiddish. What was it about this particular play that that interested you? What do you think people will take away from the production in 2018?

Rebecca Maxfield: I’d been wanting for some time to do a Jewish play, but the [current] anti-Semitic political climate made it feel particularly urgent. I like how the play portrays the prostitute characters, who are all individuals with different personalities and opinions, very humanized. And, similarly, the depiction of many Jews who are different … rather than having one minority character who has to represent the whole minority. These characters have to navigate being part of multiple minorities or female and minority (eg, LGBT and Jewish, or female and Jewish.)

MB: Do you think anything is lost (or gained) by translating the play from the original Yiddish?

RM: We’re using the public domain translation by Isaac Goldberg, but I’ve gone back to the original Yiddish (which I read a little bit — I couldn’t read it on its own, but I can check the translation) and made some changes. In particular, I’ve restored some of the Jewish references — Goldberg’s translation goes to an extreme of universalizing, it doesn’t even contain the word ‘Torah’!  I wanted to restore some of the immersion. There’s definitely other stuff that’s lost, as things are often lost in translation. I understand that there’s a word in Yiddish that literally means “woman” but has the connotation “prostitute.” Another thing that interests me, with regard to my view of the play’s themes, is that the word for “brothel” is derived from the word for “house.”

MB: Ah, that is interesting! That’s one of the things that you mentioned before, your press materials question that, “In the play, the boundary between the seedy underworld and the respectable world dissolves: When both are built on the sale of female bodies, which is the family home and which the brothel?” A lot of themes are still considered pretty controversial today. What’s your take on the religious and moral questions posed by the play?

RM: I do enjoy that all or most of the characters are morally ambiguous or ambivalent in some way. I mean, on the one hand you could construe Reb Eli saying that if anyone found out about [daughter] Rifkele’s disappearance, her dowry would need to be raised as “hush money.” On the other hand, he’s putting forth the idea that she can still be married and have a place in society, while [her father] considers her already tainted.

MB: The idea put forth that the daughter’s actions are easily forgivable by simply offering up a higher dowry to the potential groom sounds like something straight out of our current Trump/Weinstein-era headlines.

RM: There is an element of pay-to-play, but it’s in Reb Eli’s suggesting that Yekel can atone for his sins by donating to the scholars — the higher dowry is less about moral atonement for Rifkele’s actions than about the realities of marrying her off.  I think it’s part of a larger point that the playwright seems to be making about morality [being] a tangible item or a commodity. In the same way, Yekel addresses the Torah scroll as God, which would be idolatrous and Rifkele’s morality is — of course — seen as tied to her virginity.

A not insignificant part of this production’s dramaturgy has ended up being about clarifying for mostly non-Jewish actors which parts of the play are the culture (the importance of supporting the scholars), and which parts are Asch’s commentary on the culture and/or beliefs of individual characters (the idea of a transactional exchange, atonement for money).

When the show was produced on Broadway, part of the opposition to it came from the American Jewish community itself, because it was seen as potentially reinforcing anti-Semitism — you asked about why this matters in 2018, and maybe the reason it matters is that I’m still worried about what audiences will think.

Head Trick will hold post-show talkbacks with special guests from Jewish, feminist, and LGBT organizations. Scheduled to-date are actor/director/activist Tammy Brown, Carley Chambers & Jocelyn Foye from The Woman Project, Hilary Levey Friedman with the National Organization for Women, Rebecca Kislak, candidate, State Representative, District 4, David Mazower, the great-grandson of playwright Sholem Asch also of the Yiddish Book Center, Kevin Olson from University of Rhode Island/FirstHand Theatrical, Lex Rofeberg of the Judaism Unbound Podcast and Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman, Temple Beth-El. Follow Head Trick on Facebook for updates and more info: @HeadTrickTheatre.


Head Trick Theatre presents God of Vengeance by Sholem Asch at the AS220 Black Box, 95 Empire Street, Providence now through March 18, 2018 with post show talkbacks. Remaining performances are Saturday, March 10 at 7:30pm, Sunday, March 11 at 2pm, Friday, March 16 at 7:30pm, Saturday, March 17 at 2pm and 7:30pm and Sunday March 18 at 2pm. Tickets are $15, free with Brown/RISD Student ID. www.headtricktheatre.org.

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