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A CurtainUp Review
My Name is Asher Lev
My Name is Asher Lev is about a prodigy who grows up in an orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn and grapples with the conflict between the only world he knows and his emerging creative impulses. He introduces himself to the audience as a Torah Jew, and describes his struggles with his father, which start early in his life.
The father, flummoxed by his son's dogged pursuit of drawing, cannot integrate Asher's gifts with his belief system. Although as he matures, Asher decries his father's "aesthetic blindness," he, himself struggles with his responsibility to his people, his parents, his art, and to the truth. Against expectation, it is the Rebbe, the guy who pulls the strings and runs things —-including intra-family matters—- in the Hassidic community, who sets in motion the apparatus that will send young Asher on the road to self-actualization. His inner journey will culminate with the exhibition of his masterpiece painting, Brooklyn Crucifixion, and the breaking of his parents' hearts.
Although the play's mixed narrative and vignette structure is not new, it is clear why Posner uses it. The protagonist in this first-person story delivers extensive monologues (new audition piece alert for good actors) that reveal his history, views, and emotions, and he dips in and out of scenes that dramatize his story. The dialogue, compressed and very effective, is cagily chosen and shaped by Posner, who also directs the play.
It is easy to see why Karl Miller (Asher Lev), has been generating interest. He surely must lose 5 lbs during each show due to his concentration. I haven't seen as intense and disciplined a performance since Jefferson Mays performed I Am My Own Wife in a reading at the Wilma Theater in late 2002.
Adam Heller plays "Man" which means he performs all male roles except for the Asher Lev role. He is so believable as the stern Orthodox Jewish father character that you might assume the actor himself is exactly that kind of person, so where does acting enter into it? It is a revelation to see him change into the artist/mentor Jacob Kahn, a completely different kind of guy with a completely different accent—equally as believably. Heller delivers an inspired performance in each of his several roles.
Gabra Zackman in the role of "Woman" goes through a couple of remarkable transformations as well. One change, however, where the woman we have known as Asher's mother turns up briefly as another character—-Asher's nude model— is actually uncomfortable. Was an awkward oedipal resonance intended here?
The set is straightforward and clean. No clutter and no multi-levels here, although the interaction of narrator and story in space and time could invite various dramatic approaches to staging. The drama unfolds in a large, spare, graceful performing space designed by Daniel Conway with a wood floor, a few pieces of stripped wood furniture, and slender turned-spindle wood columns. Eventually picture frames will hang from these. The wise decision was made to represent art with empty frames and sheets of clean white drawing paper, and so in a play concerning art, no art is shown.
James Sugg's music, evocative yet unobtrusive, is woven into the fabric of the theater piece, as is Thom Weaver's agile lighting design, which subtly shifts focus and underscores the play's tone.
It is wonderful that Adena Potok, Chaim Potok's widow, consulted with Aaron Posner and participated in the artistic development and in rehearsals. It must have been a satisfying process for her.
This is a long and involved story about a young man, intended to follow his father's path, who grows up to find his own way in a world his parents have no way of understanding. Where others with less skill and experience might have turned this story into a three-hour soporific, Posner, with economy and intelligence, renders the hefty novel into a 90-minute theater piece. The play depends upon superb acting and precise direction, which is just what it gets at the Arden, where this production crackles and pops with life.