By John Quinn
Each of the narrative arts tells a story in a different way. Adaptations are a mixed bag; some are successful, many are less so. Aaron Posner’s dramatic adaptation of Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel, “My Name Is Asher Lev,” though, is an achievement. Posner distills Potok’s 375 pages into less than 90 minutes of drama, creating a richly theatrical experience. The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company offers us the rare opportunity to enjoy a current off Broadway hit without visiting the Big Apple.
His name is Asher Lev. He’s an observant member of Brooklyn’s tight-knit Hassidic community. He also, from early childhood, demonstrates brilliance in art – “a little Chagall.” His incessant, compulsive drawing irks his father, Aryeh, who considers art irrelevant to true religious devotion. The mediator between father and son is Asher’s mother, Rivkeh, dedicated to her beliefs but a little more tolerant of her son’s obsession.
Around age 13, Asher is introduced to noted artist Jacob Kahn, who is thoroughly secular and proud of it. It is remarkable that he’d be a friend of the Rebbe, leader of the community – a combination of “president and prophet.” It’s even more remarkable that the Rebbe understands Asher’s gift and brings the two together with the intention of allowing Kahn to mentor Asher.
Art is a world of “goyim and pagans,” and as Asher gains proficiency and fame, the subjects of his paintings begin to offend his parents. The young man is torn between conflicting passions. Can he find a synthesis between the demonic and the divine?
“My Name Is Asher Lev” is a conceptual work so streamlined it could play effectively in the smallest chamber theater. All the men but Asher are played by John Seibert, all the women by Naz Edwards. Together they are a case study in the actor’s art. Although each is using a full complement of tools to delineate his and her multiple characters, Seibert tends to employ voice. He’s particularly effective demonstrating the polar opposites among the men, contrasting the gentle, Old-world cadence of the Rebbe with Jacob Kahn’s harsh, “New Yawk” accent. Edwards leans toward using expression. Just the way she holds her mouth defines Rivkah Lev. One might think she wears a totally different face when she portrays (Sigmund Freud, call your office!) Asher’s first nude model.
But the title character is Asher Lev, and he is Mitchell A. Koory, whose stamina is impressive. He’s pretty much non-stop for the entire performance. No less impressive is the way he finds the fundamental truth in his character and conveys it to his audience.
Structurally, the drama alternates between narration and vignette and the transitions are seamless. David J. Magidson, artistic director of JET, establishes a measured pace that allows an audience to savor Potok’s use of language. He even overcomes the script’s rare hiccups; for example, a potentially dull scene in which Posner uses repetition for comic effect. Asher is trying to explain the difference between painting nudes and painting naked women to his skeptical father. It kind of got away from the playwright; the director reined it back in. Timing is everything.
At first, it seems odd that, in a play about art, there’s no art in the play. But look beyond the empty picture frames that dot the stage to the synergy between Sarah Tanner’s scenic design and Jon Weaver’s lighting. Even Chagall would be impressed. What appear to be standard interior walls painted muted colors glow in Cubist splendor when light hits them. In addition, Weaver has invented an atmospheric canvas with blue down lights, which gives him a backdrop for tight pools of warm light that follow the actors. The delineation of time and space are instantly recognizable.
Exploration of a universal theme can lead to powerful storytelling. “My Name Is Asher Lev” speaks to the clash between cultures, broadly illustrated here by the conflict between tradition and the individual, but more personally, between father and son. It may be set in New York City in the third quarter of the 20th century, but it’s a timeless story – and a captivating evening of theater.
This show is a co-production with Ann Arbor’s Performance Network Theatre.
‘My Name Is Asher Lev’
The Jewish Ensemble Theatre Company at Aaron DeRoy Theatre on the campus of the Jewish Community Center, 6600 W. Maple Road, West Bloomfield. Thursday, Saturday & Sunday through May 19. 85 minutes; no intermission. $38-45. 248-788-2900. http://www.jettheatre.org
: The production will also be presented at Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron St., Ann Arbor, Aug. 8-Sept. 8. $22-41. For information: 734-663-0681 or http://www.performancenetwork.org