Review by Laureen F. Guenther -
My Name is Asher Lev, played on Rosebud Theatre’s Studio Stage this summer. Chaim Potok’s novel was adapted by Aaron Posner, directed by Morris Ertman.
Asher Lev (Giovanni Mocibob), a Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn, NY just after World War II, introduces himself to the audience by saying he is part of a tradition – Hasidic Jews who can be traced back in his family for several generations.
Asher also has an inconvenient gift: a rare ability to draw. His mother (Heather Pattengale) wants her son to make only pretty pictures, but Asher can’t make them pretty as she’d like. His father (Nathan Schmidt) wants his son to study, and not to draw at all.
From early childhood on, Asher must defend his gift, defend himself. He tries not to draw, but that doesn’t work either. When he tells his father, “I can’t help it,” his father’s response is typical: “It’s an evil will that makes you want to draw.”
Asher receives mentoring from the “world’s greatest Jewish artist” (also Nathan Schmidt) a jaded man who shocks Asher’s parents further by teaching him to paint nudes – and then crucifixes.
In adulthood, Asher maintains his traditional religious observances, but, he tells his parents, he’s part of another tradition – a tradition of artists.
I felt I’d heard the story told, as well as seeing it acted, for Asher Lev narrates back-story and plot transitions throughout. On the small set, with few but effective props, the other actors remain quietly active throughout most his storytelling sections, so the sense of action continues. Except, that is, for one longer section of narration near the end – when I became consciously aware we were hearing narration.
Giovanni Mocibob is a passionate Asher Lev, using simple variations in dialogue and gesture that make him believable at age 6, 7, 12, 13 and into adulthood. I liked, for example, that, as a six-year-old, when he shows his mother a picture of her, he calls the tears on her cheeks “wet spots” rather than using a more mature phrase. As a young boy, he speaks to his father with head bowed, avoiding eye contact; as a young man he still fears his father’s disapproval, but he stands straight, eye-to-eye.
I was impressed by Heather Pattengale’s versatility; in addition to playing Asher’s devout and worried mother, trying to understand her strangely-gifted son, she plays the worldly art gallery owner, Anna Schaeffer; and an artist’s model, sensual Rachel.
Nathan Schmidt too is remarkably versatile, playing Asher’s visionary but narrow-minded father; Asher’s jaded, aging mentor; the spiritual, controlling Rebbe; and Asher’s sympathetic uncle.
All three actors speak for their Jewish characters in a soft believable accent. When they used several Yiddish terms, I’d read them in the novel previously. I heard another audience member suggest a list of Yiddish terms be included in the program; that seems a valid suggestion. However, my 12-year-old nephew (by far the youngest member of our audience) says he easily understood what the Yiddish words meant.
My Name is Asher Lev has a challenging message for anyone who has a difficult, non-traditional calling – and for anyone who finds a loved one’s gift hard to accept. “Be a great painter, Asher Lev,” his mentor told him. “That is the only justification for all the pain you will cause.”
To view Rosebud Theatre’s Fall season, visit www.rosebudtheatre.com.
Laureen Guenther lives in Alberta and writes book and play reviews for Maranatha News. Laureen is also a teacher, a special needs ministry volunteer, and a devoted auntie. Read her blog at http://reeniesresources.blogspot.com.