My Name is Asher Lev – Review

Giovanni Mocibob as Asher Lev is fascinated by his father’s (Aryeh Lev), played by Nathan Schmidt. Photo Credit: Morris Ertman

My Name is Asher Lev

July 4 – August 25, 2012

Rosebud Theatre

http://www.rosebudtheatre.com/rosebud-theatre-current-season.html

Listen to my live review on CBC’s Eyeopener of July 20th at 7:20am http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/

Taking a cue from Jacob Kahn, one of the characters in My Name is Asher Lev, who prefers bluntness above all, when I first heard that Rosebud Theatre was putting on this play my reaction was a sarcastic and disbelieving, I gotta see this! For a theatre company with strong connections to the faith-based Christian community to be putting on a play about Hassidic Jews in a town (or even Province) where the Jewish population is minute, never mind the ultra-religious Hassidic sect, seemed odd to say the least.

Would they do justice to the original story written by the famous Jewish American author and Rabbi, Chaim Potok? Would they dumb down the Yiddish and Anglicise the dialogue? Who would they cast as these 1940’s Brooklyn Hassidic characters and would the actors be able to deliver the accents and mannerisms without tripping into stereotype? All these questions swirled in my head as I made my way along the 90-minute drive from Calgary out to the little town of Rosebud and their very successful rural theatre.

My questions were answered in interesting ways, but before the analysis – the plot.

The play tells the story of a Hassidic Jewish boy named Asher Lev who is born with an incredible gift and unassailable passion for drawing. As in, drawing all the time, at the expense of almost everything else. For most families, this would be a problem, but it’s especially problematic in the cloistered community of the ultra-religious Hassidic Jews who pray 3 times a day, don’t mingle with the outside world and have very strict rules about what they wear and eat. While Hassids can appreciate art, it’s certainly not thought of as a respectable profession or something that should take time away from your studies.  In trying to forbid Asher from continuing his drawing his father asserts that a painter is someone who paints your house and that being an artist doesn’t serve God in the manner they believe.

Asher is a good boy, he loves his family and believes in his religion but he can’t quash his burning desire to create and communicate his feelings through his art. Even when those feelings ultimately lead him to create paintings that are extremely offensive to his family and his community and cause wide-ranging consequences and conflicts.

An unusual production choice for Rosebud theatre? Well yes and no. Rosebud is a theatre that traditionally attracted a religious Christian audience looking for faith-based programming. But according to the Artistic Director Morris Ertman, (who staged My Name is Asher Lev in Vancouver in 2010) of the thirty-five thousand or so people who come to Rosebud every year, there’s a real mix between religious and non-religious people of all backgrounds. Ertman maintains his programming highlights plays that are spiritual as opposed to simply Christian – plays about the human heart and the spirit of the community. So while I think it’s fair to say that you will never see a David Mamet play put on at Rosebud, My Name is Asher Lev falls nicely within their mandate.

My mandate for the play was to see it performed with honesty and authenticity, and I was not disappointed. I was very pleased to see that neither the story nor the language was dumbed-down for the audience.  While the play’s central theme examining the conflict between what you want to do with your life and what your family or community deems appropriate is a fairly universal theme, the play did not shy away from the use of some decidedly unknown language and religious doctrine. True, you don’t need to know a lot about the ways of Hassidic Jews to follow the plot, but I couldn’t help thinking that I might have been getting a bit more out of the story than some of the other audience members who knew nothing about this way of life. When it came to the language, I knew I was following along easier than most people.  My Name is Asher Lev contains quite a bit of Yiddish and I’m not talking about the words that most people know like kvetch or schmooze. Instead, the audience hears words like narishkite, meaning a foolish person or Ribbono shel Olem which is a reference to God as the Creator and Master of the universe. Some of the language gets explained in English and some doesn’t, but from what I could tell, the audience followed along well enough that it wasn’t a big deal and didn’t take away from their enjoyment of the play.  Or perhaps I just underestimated the sophistication of the audience. Either way, I was impressed with both the delivery and acceptance of some of the play’s tougher moments.

I was however, less impressed overall when it came to the writing and acting in the play. My Name is Asher Lev is a not an easy story to stage.  The book is told in first person and the play honours that format – a format that can get pretty limiting and frankly boring if it’s not done right. And it while it wasn’t done wrong in the first act per se, it certainly wasn’t all that engaging. Much of the storyline and dialogue in the first act is basically a long repetitive loop of, I want to draw, you’re not allowed to draw, but I need to draw, but this isn’t the way we do things. Over and over again. It sets the story up, but some economy was greatly needed here to really keep our interest.

It’s the second act where things really take off and the story becomes truly compelling as we watch the evolution of Asher as a person and an artist. Its here that’s Asher’s first person voice carries great impact and brings audiences closer into the story. But not because the performances of Asher or his mother were all that intriguing, mind you.

Throughout the play I found myself  disappointed with Giovanni Mocibob as Asher Lev. While it was a passably competent performance I found his range was limited to either anger or intensity in a type of straight-line acting that was too unmodulated in its emotional tone. Heather Pattengale as Asher’s mom Rivkeh also fell more to the capable side of the acting divide and had some issues getting her Yiddish accent consistent and correct during the performance.

But truthfully, all of this almost didn’t matter because I was so glued to Nathan Schmidt playing Asher’s father Aryeh and a number of other important characters, that it was extremely easy to gloss over the lesser performances. Schmidt not only played his roles with exquisite and seemingly effortless authenticity, his ability to embody a character and play him as a complex person above and beyond the script’s offerings was remarkable. It was a delightful surprise to encounter this level of talent at Rosebud and I was grateful to have seen it. For those of you that read my reviews often, you are aware that a standing ovation from me is a rare occurrence at best. Had the cast come out individually at the end of the play, I would have had no problem getting on my feet to applaud Schmidt on his wonderful performance.

It’s an effort to go see My Name is Asher Lev. The drive is long and my windshield is a total bug splatter graveyard from the excursion. But if you’re up for a bit of a day trip, despite some of the weaker moments in the show, my feeling is that there is a lot of really good stuff going on in this play. It’s an interesting story that tackles the issues honestly and doesn’t sugar coat the problem or give us neat and tidy answers. Morris Ertman’s direction makes very good use of a small stage and Lachlin Johnson’s set design is minimal but nicely effective. And then of course there is Schmidt’s performance, which for me was reason enough to have made the whole trip worthwhile.

RATING 

For the guys and the girls – Who can’t relate to the need to follow your dreams? Or the tension one would feel if those dreams were in direct conflict with a family you loved. It’s a messy situation that the play doesn’t pretend to fix for you. SEE IT

For the occasional theatre goer – A chance to learn about a culture you may not know much about through a storyline that you will relate to. Despite some foreign language, it’s easy to follow and this time you might be ok with not having things perfectly resolved at the end of the show. SEE IT

For the theatre junkie – There are problems. But they aren’t huge. And the upside of the one brilliant performance should be very tempting. MAYBE SEE IT

*Final Note – The day I went to see the play was a lovely sunny and warm day, which translated into an almost unbearable hot and muggy temperature inside the theatre. If you do go when the weather is warm, I suggest dressing as lightly as possible, bringing cold water and possibly something effective to fan yourself with.

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