Thursday, March 10, 2011
Thought provoking ASHER LEV examines family and tradition at CPH
At the start of MY NAME IS ASHER LEV, which is now in production at the Cleveland Play House, a bearded, dark suited young man stands center stage in a spot of light. All attention is focused on him as he states that he is an observant Jew who is also an artist. He is a controversial artist, who has challenged the customs and dictates of his pious Orthodoxy by not only being a painter, but having conceived a blasphemous duo of paintings. Paintings, named Brooklyn Crucifixions, which show his mother as a martyr being crucified on a cross created by the window frame in their Brooklyn apartment from which she watched the world. A martyr for her role as the peace maker between the boy and his father.
Asher, our narrator, takes us on a journey through his life. Age 12…he discovers art when his mother takes him to the Art Museum; age 6…we view his art abilities starting to develop; age 7, his exposure to Chagall and Picasso and the sale of his first painting; the death of his mother's beloved brother, which sends her into a psychological tail spin and causes Asher to stop painting. The tale goes on, carrying the audience through a non-linear emotional roller coaster which ends in a series of events which changes Asher and the family forever.
MY NAME IS ASHER LEV is a play adapted by Aaron Posner from the best selling book by Chaim Potok.
Chaim Potok, an ordained rabbi, writes from the perspective of a man brought up in an Orthodox branch of Judaism which adheres to a strict interpretation of the Talmud and the Torah. In his writing he examines the conflict between secular, religious and individualistic interests. He probes the concept of aesthetic blindness as it relates to moral blindness. His books THE CHOSEN and THE PROMISE brought him world wide fame. MY NAME IS ASHER LEV and a sequel, THE GIFT OF ASHER LEV, continued his exploration of the difficulty of living a strictly religious life in a secular world and the problems it can create in a family.
The CPH production, under the direction of Laura Kepley, is well conceived. Kepley had many decisions to make regarding the staging. She went with minimalism in order to force the audience to become artists. There is no actual art work shown…all the papers and canvases are blank…forcing the viewer to imagine what is there…it stimulates literal visions from imagination. Asher, at all ages, is played by one bearded actor with no costume or makeup changes. We are challenged to imagine Asher from ages 6 to adulthood, while seeing the same physical being. We see the father transitioning into the Rebbe, Asher's uncle and Asher's art teacher. The mother also portrays a nude model and an art gallery owner.
Noel Joseph Allain gives a nicely textured performance as Asher. Elizabeth Raetz, is believable in her roles as mother, art gallery owner and model. Tom Alan Robbins gives fidelity to each of his multiple portrayals.
The simple set, the underscored music, effective lighting and authentic costumes all help create the illusions and carry us on our journey.
One of the questions must be, “Will a person who is not Jewish be able to both understand and feel empathy?” Following the opening night production I talked to A. Grace Lee Mims, the area's well known African American radio show host, who assured me that the message of family and cultural rituals were universal, and she thoroughly enjoyed the production. She shared that reading the program Glossary, which lists the Yiddish and Hebrew terms used in the play, aided in her understanding the Jewish specific vocabulary.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: MY NAME IS ASHER LEV is a well written script which gets a finely conceived production at the Cleveland Play House. Mazel Tov (congratulations) to the director and cast!