Tuesday, April 26, 2016

"My Name is Asher Lev" packs a lot of life conflict into a small space

The cast of My Name is Asher Lev (Elise Bakketun)
My Name is Asher Lev
New Century Theatre Company
Through May 21, 2016

“My name is Asher Lev,” he begins, and assures us he is the painter of the “crucifix paintings.” We (apparently) know all about them. Thus begins the new play at New Century Theatre Company named My Name is Asher Lev that feels like an older story. It’s adapted from an acclaimed Chaim Potok book of the same title, though the adaptation by Aaron Posner is only several years old.

Coincidentally, we can see another Aaron Posner adaptation across town at ACT, Stupid Fucking Bird. It’s a unique opportunity that Seattle theaters sometimes accidentally give us to get to know a playwright more deeply by seeing two or more of his/her (but usually his) plays almost at once. Both plays focus on “art” and making it or living it or being compelled by it, but discuss “art” in very different ways.
In fact, Stupid Fucking Bird, while based on an older text (Chekhov’s The Seagull), is much more distinctly modern than My Name is Asher Lev. The NCTC production is deliberately more time-atmospheric, though the ideas embedded are not at all time-limited. Potok created a fictional artist who grows up in a Hasidic Jewish family in the ‘50s. The time period is from about five years old to about mid-twenties.

Hasidic Jews are a particular Orthodox sect that were founded around a particular charismatic Rabbi (in Yiddish Rebbe reh-bee) and while embracing a very strict interpretation of Orthodoxy, they also include an element of joy in their religion, even ecstasy. But embracing art like paintings is not particularly a part of the aesthetic. When young Asher finds a compulsion to draw, it is not honored as anything but a waste of time.

So, immediately, Asher’s compulsion puts him at odds with most of his family’s and community’s priorities and approval. Even when they begin to acknowledge a real talent, they are mystified by his drawing of the human body or copying other art in museums to learn from them. But when they find that he is drawn to crucifixes, the shit really hits the fan.

There are many layers of honor and complication in this brief (90 minute) play. Asher (played by Conner Neddersen) is not rejecting of his faith or his family, but is put in a position that challenges both areas despite his lack of intention. His father (played by Bradford Farwell) makes a very clear statement about how deeply wounding the symbol of the cross is to Jews who are still reeling from the effects of the Holocaust and the pogroms of Russia, the specter of the world trying to wipe Jews from its face.

Asher’s mother (played by Amy Thone) is stuck trying to placate both sides of the small family, understanding both of them. Unfortunately, this underwritten role just ends up being a placeholder for all the women in the play. Thone does a fine job with an understated presence, but there just isn’t much else she can do.

Farwell gets to be a number of other men in Asher’s life, and is especially fun as Kahn, an older painter/mentor who knows what the “real” world holds for Asher. There is an exploration about “art” and what it reflects and what it demands. Here in particular is where we get to know more about writer Posner and his own ideas, too. There is also the conflict between kids and parents, religion and secular life, being true to your community or true to yourself. You’ll walk away with a lot to think about.

If you are Jewish and going to this very Jewish play, and hoping you’ll hear Yiddish accents and pronunciations, I’ll quote Jesus to you, “Forgive them, they know not what they do.”

For more information, go to www.wearenctc.org or call 253-906-3348.