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RMTC's MY NAME IS ASHER LEV-WORTHWHILE THEATRE WHICH EXAMINES FASCINATING CONFLICT BETWEEN ASHER's ORTHODOXY AND HIS DESIRE TO MAKE ART

by Jane Enkin Oct 23, 2016

"My Name is Asher Lev", By Aaron Posner Adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok

A co-production with the Segal Centre

RMTC Tom Hendry Warehouse October 13 - October 29, 2016

“Art is whether or not there is a scream in him wanting to get out in a special way.”

 Chaim Potok, My Name Is Asher Lev

 

Quality storytelling and captivating performances make this a worthwhile and very interesting evening of theatre, which gives the viewer a fascinating window into Orthodox Jewish life in post-war America.

The main character, Asher Lev, narrates this account of his years as a boy and then a very young man. Asher grows up in an Orthodox Jewish household, raised by parents who are devoted to an unnamed Rebbe – one who, through his emphasis on outreach, seems modelled on the Lubvitcher.  From early childhood, Asher has an unusual level of skill and interest in drawing, and he feels his destiny is to become an artist. The play examines the intense and dramatic  conflict between his desire to make art and his desire to be an observant Jew.

As Asher Lev, David Reale gives a strong impression of youthful impulsivity, with a stubborn emphasis on his own intuitions and desires. Deep feelings of enthusiasm, frustration, embarrassment and affection come across well and Reale’s performance is gripping. Asher is focussed very much on himself, as we’re told many times in the play, yet Reale is successful in showing also his tenderness and empathy.

As we watch Asher grow and develop, the conflicts in his life between his orthodox beliefs and his passionate enough to make art intensifies. Asher’s artwork is never displayed in the production which is the same as in Chaim Potok’s popular novel, the source of this story. We see blank canvasses and must depend on  verbal descriptions which make the works come alive in our imaginations.

There is a strong, and memorable  argument between father and son in which neither is a convincing winner – Asher accuses his father of “aesthetic blindness” and his father suggests that his son must be wary of “moral blindness.”

Asher’s journey of discovery, first his innate exploration of visual art and then his exposure to the great tropes of Western art and to the attitudes of his mentor, a non-observant Jew, are enjoyable and interesting.  It’s worth it to take time with a collage in the lobby of some significant works of art that influenced the young artist.

An intriguing aspect of the story, well-communicated by the three actors in their multiple roles, is that each character is first and foremost a creative person, with drives that can make them appear self-centred whenever they are not self-sacrificing.

Ellen David, playing all the women in Asher’s life, has fun with her roles as a voluptuous artists’ model and a (slightly) hard-nosed, business-oriented gallery owner.  In her role as Asher’s mother, David has the most range to work with in the script and she gives a vivid, shifting, shimmering performance.  It was riveting to see her change from a girlish friend to her son, to a distant sufferer lost in a fog of grief, to a mature, assertive woman who glows with happiness as she joins her husband working on the Rebbe’s behalf.

The men in Asher’s life are played by Alex Poch-Goldin.  All are sweet, soft, gentle men, even when they don’t see themselves that way in the moment. The Rebbe in particular is presented as a gentle, wise old man, and although the script depends on the understanding that there is so much tension between Asher and his father that it tears at his mother, really they both seem very nice, even when they disagree.

One of the most beautiful repeated images in the play is the loving gaze the mother and father share at the door when he departs for long work-related trips.  Silent moments such as these glances, the unspoken responses to Asher’s work, and the mother’s long sojourns watching at the window, are among the finest features of Steven Schipper’s direction.

Emily Auciello’s choice of music is appropriate to the New York Hasidic community and makes a lovely backdrop for the play, as does Martin Ferland’s simple, flexible set.  Louise Bourret’s costumes are also effective.

I found it fascinating to learn something about Chaim Potok’s life as I prepared to see the play.  He was raised in an Orthodox home and it was Western literature that drew him into a new world, just as Western art does for his character Asher Lev.  He left Orthodox observance and became an important figure in the Conservative movement and a long-time editor at the Jewish Publication Society.  He wrote many popular novels, he was an academic, and he was ordained as a conservative rabbi.  He was also a artist, and in his home his own realization of the work described at the climax of My Name Is Asher Lev.

Potok said, (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Potok.html) "I prayed in a little shtiebel [prayer room], and my mother is a descendant of a great Hasidic dynasty and my father was a Hasid, so I come from that world.”

From a 1997 interview: (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Potok.html)

“My particular natural life experience has been that of cultures clashing in a certain way--confrontation of core elements. From my Jewish culture to literature, for example. I grew up at the heart, at the core, of one culture. And then I encountered an element from the core of the general culture in which I was living, and that element was modern secular literature… Others had other kinds of culture confrontations. Friends of mine encountered the world of science that they found stunning, and to no small degree overwhelming. Others encountered Sigmund Freud. I remember one of my friends reading Darwin, and that was the end of his view of Genesis…That was the world that I grew up in. And the subject of my writing then became this confrontation: What happens? How do you feel? What do you think? What are your dreams? How do you relate to human beings around you? What are the dimensions of this confrontation? How does it affect families? It's my feeling that in the modern period we're all going through this sort of confrontation one way or another.”

 

 

 

 

 
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