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Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010

Silences Speak to Truths in Rep’s ‘Asher Lev’

Theater Review

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“Be a great painter, Asher Lev,” the prominent artist Jacob Kahn says to his young prodigy. “It’s the only justification for all the pain you’re about to cause.”

How can a young boy, “a Torah Jew,” create anguish and agony through his paintings? This theme, among others, is explored in My Name Is Asher Lev, a 90-minute play based on Chaim Potok’s well-known 1972 novel of the same name. Adapted and directed by Aaron Posner, Asher Lev opened in The Rep’s Stiemke Studio last weekend and brought to life Potok’s story of a young boy caught in the ongoing struggle between tradition and modernism, father and son, loyalty to the world of faith and religion versus loyalty to one’s true self.

There are no easy answers (as Potok intended) as the young Asher discovers his passion for drawing and art, where “Everhard [markers] and Crayola [crayons] were my dearest companions.” A loner within the Hasidic Jewish community of 1940s Brooklyn, N.Y., Asher is further alienated from his strict traditionalist father, who builds yeshivas (houses of learning) throughout Europe and helps other Jews that are persecuted. As an only child, Asher turns to his very young mother, who is just as conflicted, caught in the middle between father and son, the outside secular world and the Hasidic community within.

Adapting a well-known novel by such an esteemed writer is a challenging task. Fortunately Posner has succeeded in taking the material and turning it into a work that holds the audience’s attention while dramatizing key events as Asher grows into his true self as an artist. (Posner previously adapted Potok’s The Chosen.)

Suffering is also a major theme in Asher Lev. True to Kahn’s words, Asher becomes a famous artist because of his most (in)famous work, Brooklyn Crucifixion, which depicts his mother crucified like Christ. As Christ suffered, so do his parents upon seeing the work and so does Asher, “an observant Jew” who paints crucifixions. He completes the circle of being an outsider, now totally shunned by the insular community of his youth.

The adaptation and direction work on the combined strengths of the three actors: Jonathan Bock as Asher, Cassandra Bissell as Asher’s mother (and the other female roles) and, in particular, Daniel Cantor as Asher’s father as well as the brash, demanding artist Kahn.

Kevin Depinet’s empty, forlorn set reinforces the isolation and alienation of the three amid blank canvases and empty frames that leave Asher’s artwork to our imagination.

However, it is the ensuing and engulfing silences that frame the actual truths within My Name Is Asher Lev.

The Rep’s My Name Is Asher Lev runs through Nov. 14 in the Stiemke Studio.
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