★★★★★ - Irresistible
Last weekend -- Jewish Repertory Theatre of Nevada offered a staged reading that felt more like a full-scaled production. With scripts in hand, the four-member, mostly Equity cast performed My Name Is Asher Lev, written by Aaron Posner and adapted from the acclaimed novel by Chaim Potok. Such a remarkable 5-Star event is very costly to produce with union actors, so was limited to just two performances over the past weekend!
Set in post WWII Brooklyn, My Name Is Asher Lev follows the journey of a young Jewish painter torn between his Hasidic upbringing and his desperate need to fulfill his artistic promise. When his genius threatens to destroy his relationship with his parents, young Asher realizes he must make difficult choices between his passion and his faith. This stirring adaptation of a modern classic presents a heartbreaking and triumphant vision of what it means to be an artist at any cost -- against the will of family, community and tradition.
Asher Lev is a Ladover Hasid who keeps kosher, prays three times a day and believes in the Ribbono Shel Olom, the Master of the Universe. He is also an artist who is compulsively driven to render the world he sees and feels even when it leads him to blasphemy. In this stirring presentation, an acclaimed troupe of actors passionately and vividly portrays the strong family ties and cultural traditions that trace Asher’s passage between these two identities, the one consecrated to God, the other subject only to the imagination.
Michelle Azar and Stephen Macht each deftly interpret multiple characters throughout the play. We first meet them as the loving, nurturing but firm parents, themselves descendants of two significant family lines of leading, pious Jews. Asher Lev (skillfully portrayed by Jeff Leibow) dearly loves both of them, but struggles with his emotions and cultural obligations even as he realizes that he’s “come into the world with a unique and disquieting gift”! Stephen also later plays the Rebbe, very naturally bringing into play his wealth of knowledge as a Chaplain and scholar within the Jewish community.
We next encounter both Ms. Azar (as Anna) and Mr. Macht (as Jacob Kahn) on the secular side of Asher’s life, “artists” inhabiting the materialistic world who are quickly taken with Asher’s obvious talent. Paradoxically, they become his “creative parents”, mentoring him and providing opportunities for the exhibition of his work.
Asher Lev had grown up in a cloistered Hasidic community, a world suffused by ritual and revolving around a charismatic Rebbe. But in time his gift threatens to estrange him from that world and the parents he adores. As it follows his struggle, the play becomes a luminous portrait of the artist, by turns heartbreaking and exultant...
“I looked at my right hand, the hand with which I painted. There was power in that hand. Power to create and destroy. Power to bring pleasure and pain. Power to amuse and horrify. There was in that hand the demonic and the divine at one and the same time. The demonic and the divine were two aspects of the same force. Creation was demonic and divine. Creativity was demonic and divine. I was demonic and divine.”
When Asher is older, the conflict becomes more internal. He becomes more aware of what is at stake and has to consciously make decisions about what is more important. The most significant example of this is his decision to display the crucifixion. In doing so, he consciously chooses to hurt his family and community in order to remain true to his art and share his artistic vision.
“For the Master of the Universe, whose suffering world I do not comprehend. For dreams of horror, for nights of waiting, for memories of death, for the love I have for you, for all the things I remember, and for all the things I should remember but have forgotten, for all these I created this painting—an observant Jew working on a crucifixion because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment.”
He was conflicted between his religious heritage and the "carnal" world. He was conflicted between respecting his parents and becoming his own person. He was conflicted between Tradition and Growth. He was conflicted between two things that were both "good." So much of his character development embodies principles that apply to us all. What do we owe ourselves and what do we owe our family and community? These are not easily answered because they are so unique to every person -- dependent upon each individual's appetites, experiences, and environment.
The depiction of Asher's family in a crucifix is a major achievement for him. He knows that the painting of his family using the motif of the crucifixion will bring his parents tremendous pain. He has come a long way to understand the type of pain his mother has gone through. His way of expressing this awareness, though, is through producing a painting that depicts this pain. That is why he creates the painting. Steeped in the artistic tradition, the crucifixion means a great deal to him: it is the ultimate symbol of suffering. So, it is natural that Asher would use this symbol to convey the pain his mother has felt.
Of course, though, those not steeped in the artistic tradition would not attach the same meaning to the Crucifixion as Asher does. The Ladover community, and particularly Asher's father, has very different associations with the crucifixion. For them, the crucifix is the symbol of a religion and a culture that has persecuted Jews and attempted to destroy Judaism for millennia. The Ladover community does not understand the language of paint with which Asher speaks; thus, instead of understanding the powerful emotions he is trying to convey, they are angered and hurt. The Rebbe asks him to leave their community.
He moves downstage and proudly repeats directly to the audience, “My Name is Asher Lev”… and the audience rises to its feet with a thunderous ovation!
[As a side note: Chaim Potok, like many of his protagonists, embraced both modernity and traditional Judaism. He, too, was an accomplished painter, in addition to being a writer and a Rabbi. In a fascinating intersection between art and life, Potok himself created "Brooklyn Crucifixion," a painting central to the heartrending climax of My Name is Asher Lev. "Brooklyn Crucifixion" actually hung in Potok's home.]
My Name Is Asher Lev Jewish Repertory Theatre of Southern Nevada The Theatre at Temple Sinai 9001 Hillpointe Road, Las Vegas, Nevada 89134 April 16 @ 8pm - April 17 @ 2pm only!
Pictured: Jeff Leibow as Asher