Story-ideas-1011172

Searing Jewish inner conflict on stage

  • FeldmanAsherLevReview
Play: My Name is Asher Lev Cast: Robert Fridjhon; Alan Swerdlow; Louise Saint-Claire Director: Moira Blumenthal Venue: Studio, Pieter Toerien's Theatre, Montecasino Until: September 3
by PETER FELDMAN | Aug 03, 2017

The searing conflict tearing away at the heart and soul of an "observant" American Chassidic Jew named Asher Lev, forms the basis upon which renowned Jewish author and rabbi Chaim Potok has fashioned this potent narrative.

Asher Lev (Robert Fridjhon) is a Ladover Chassidic. He keeps kosher, prays three times a day and believes in the Ribbono Shel Olom, the Master of the Universe. Asher Lev is also a gifted artist who is compulsively driven to render the world he sees and feels through vivid images - even when this path leads him to blasphemy according to his faith.

This is a spellbinding piece of work that is faithfully adapted by Aaron Posner from the classic 1972 novel, and directed with style and understanding by Moira Blumenthal.

It traces Asher's soul-searching journey between his two identities: the one consecrated to G-d and the other element which festers within his virile imagination. 

Asher's childhood evolves within a cloistered Chassidic community in a post-war Brooklyn. His world is suffused by ritual and revolves around a charismatic Rebbe. In time, however, his gift threatens to estrange him from that world and that of the parents, whom he adores.

Asher talks directly to his audience as his story unfolds. He moves from a talented boy of six with an irresistible urge to draw, to the heady heights of success, having his work displayed in art galleries in major cities and earning big money, an aspect his incredulous father (Alan Swerdlow) cannot comprehend.

The parents - his father is a travelling scholar - are shaken by their son's burgeoning creativity. It clashes with their religious devotion and the dialogue between father and son crackles with intensity.

The intense subject matter is the glue that binds this work; fiery discussions on art, its place in the world and how, as one character notes, "an artist is only responsible for his art and everything else is propaganda".

A contentious issue with his parents is the fact that Asher has painted nudes (not naked women, as he explains to his religious father) and the crucifixion.

An established artist and mentor (Swerdlow again) takes Asher under his wing and gives him five years to make his mark. During this time, the boy learns quickly about art and life and comes to understand the emotional drive within him.

"Be a great artist," the mentor tells the boy, "it's the only justification for all the pain you are about to cause."

Spurred on by often cruel words from his mentor, Asher thrives in this environment. It's an art world with the value system of "goyim and pagans", he learns. Asher also has to learn that to be an honest artist - as distinct, say, from one who paints tchatchkes - is to be an outsider.

The players all come across as honest and authentic. Louise Saint Claire plays several roles: Asher's devoted mother, an art gallery owner and an artist's model and is convincing on each level as does Swerdlow and it’s wonderful to see this noted director acting again.

Asher Lev’s tale deals with nonconformity and of following one's passion. It is also decidedly non-judgmental and unsentimental.

Robert Fridjhon anchors the play with a telling performance. There is an urgency in his delivery and his expressive features draw you into his story.

The simple stage setting serves as various locales, including an apartment and an art gallery.

"My Name is Asher Lev" is a wholly entertaining and thought-provoking exercise that will certainly appeal to the Jewish community and, no doubt, spark some lively debate between art and religion. 

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