My Name is Asher Lev. A beautiful and demanding play.
Reviewed by Rajka Stefanovska
August 17, 2012 Friday at 11:19 am
Photos by 9th Hour Theatre company
My Name is Asher Lev is a story about growing up in a strict and religious surrounding while searching for an individual identity. Set in in the 1950s in a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York, it explores the conflict between orthodox Jewish tradition and art, as well as between the individual and the group.
It is not easy to be different and Asher Levy, a child with a prodigious artistic ability, knows it only too well. Although everybody admires his gift for painting, it seems that, as he grows older, the adults are less and less capable of understanding him, and more and more prone to angrily censor his work.
It took him years and some maturing to understand how their life experience, which included prosecution and a deeply rooted belief in bringing the Master of the Universe to the world, molded their complex personalities. A defense of the old values, fear that they might perish, an endurance to carry on at any cost, and a need for self-preservation made them rigid and unyielding to anything that poses a threat to their ways. Asher himself is a true Hasidic Jew. He believes in the Torah as the word of God and he observes every segment of the faith. Asher is also an artist though. He sees the world with the eyes of artist. To him everything is expressed in colours and shapes – things, people and feelings. Both sides are passionate about their views, and from this passion come conflict – deep, painful and insurmountable. They clash on numerous levels – self-fulfillment versus family values ("shalom bayit" which express the acceptance of one’s place in life), religious tradition versus secular, and individual – father versus son. The logical result of these circumstances is enormous suffering.
The play is staged as a narrative of Asher Lev, so that most of the weight lies on his shoulders. Drew Moore occasionally succeeded to capture the fillings of the artist (especially of the young Asher). Unfortunately his narrative did not feel like that of the tormented artist. Emotionally it was not convincing and often lacked the depth and the layers of passion, conflict and suffering. His diction and phrasing (extremely important for monologues) needed some polishing and logical endings. It felt like a recitation more than the telling of a story. David Whiteley had a few brilliant moments at the end of the show as a painter Jacob Kahn, but in the rest of the play, all his characters sounded the same. The main problem for both actors was a great deal of shouting instead of trying to convey a variety of feelings in a more subtle way. One can speak very quietly and still express a huge range of emotion.
Sarah Gabriella Waisvisz looked natural as a model, but did not really capture the personality of Anna Schaeffer, the impertinent but supportive owner of the art gallery or Rivkeh Lev, Asher’s mother. In creating the character of the artist’s mother, one should bear in mind her suffering in an attempt to reconcile her husband and son, but one should also not forget her huge strength (she received a Masters degree and then pursues a doctorate in Russian affairs in order to continue her late brother’s work). There is no need to portray her as a haggard, spineless, almost non-existent personage.
The strongest part of the production was set and costume design. Frames are used very effectively to mark the milestones and different stages in time and different atmosphere during the passage of time.
My name is Asher Lev is a beautiful and very demanding play. Although, judging by the applause at the end of the show, the audience enjoyed themselves, it left a lot wanting.
My Name is Asher Lev
9th Hour Theatre at Arts Court
Adapted by Aaron Posner the from the novel by Chaim Potok
Production: The 9th Hour Theatre Company
Director: Bronwyn Steinberg
Set & Costumes Design: Patrice-Ann Forbes
Asher Lev: Drew Moore
The Women (Rivkeh Lev and Anna Schaeffer): Sarah Gabriella Waisvisz
The Men (Aryeh Lev, Jacob Kahn, The Rebbe): David Whiteley
It plays at Arts Court from August 15 to 25, 2012.