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My Name is Asher Lev at the Cleveland Play House

Asher Lev is onstage at the Cleveland Play House in the Baxter, March 4 – April 3, 2011.

Religion and art can simultaneously be two of the most unifying and polarizing topics between people.  This is because – unlike other heated subjects such as politics or your favorite sports team – the two have become about much more than beliefs and opinions. They’ve seen entire cultures and ways of life created around them.

Although there is the occasion where religion and art can complement one another, more often than not they clash — many times with significant consequences. The production currently on stage at the Cleveland Play House examines this conflict.

In My Name is Asher Lev, a young man who grows up isolated in a Brooklyn Hasidic sect finds that he is driven by a desperation to develop his art. The power of his gift introduces him to a similarly isolated community – the Manhattan art world. However, the isolating nature of these cultures is where the similarities end – because to stay true to his vision, Asher is compelled to paint subject matter forbidden by his family’s culture.

The play examines whether someone torn between two dramatically disparate cultures can reconcile them or whether they have to make the ultimate decision to abandon one.

In My Name is Asher Lev, Asher (Noel Joseph Allain) struggles with his family's culture and the gift of his art that conflicts with it. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni

My Name is Asher Lev is an adaptation of a novel by Chaim Potok. Potok, who was a rabbi in addition to being an author and educator, often took inspiration from his religion and upbringing. This is particularly evident in My Name is Asher Lev which has many autobiographical links to Potok.

The most interesting similarity is how the conflict caused by Asher’s need to paint mirrors Potok’s own childhood desire to be an artist. In Potok’s case, he turned away from painting when his extremely Orthodox family discouraged it – eventually becoming an author. Subsequently, the story takes on additional meaning as the artist’s exploration of ‘what if?’

Playwright Aaron Posner’s adaptation was faithful to the story but pared down the novel to seven characters whose relationships were key to Asher’s life. In addition to Asher, there was Aryeh and Rivkeh Lev (Asher’s father and mother), his Uncle Yitzchok, the Rebbe of their sect, an art dealer Anna Schaeffer, Asher’s artistic mentor Jacob Kahn and a model named Rachel. We see how each one impacted Asher and how imparting their passionate beliefs created the conflict within him.

Even as a child, Asher’s obsession with his art alienates him from his father. Pictured from left: Tom Alan Robbins, Noel Joseph Allain. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni

These seven characters were portrayed by three actors – Noel Joseph Allain, who played Asher from a child of six to his twenties; Elizabeth Raetz, who played his mother, Schaeffer and the model; and Tom Alan Robbins, who took on Asher’s father, Uncle, the Rebbe and Jacob.

This intentional triple casting worked for a number of reasons. Most notably, the roles Robbins played were all father figures to Asher. Having the same actor portray these roles – especially those of Asher’s father and artistic mentor – not just demonstrated the differences in the cultures but also how similarly isolating they could be — worthy of only the most singularly devoted.

Robbins (who as an interesting side note created the role of Pumbaa in The Lion King on Broadway) deftly jumped from each of these characters — not missing a beat when he had to leave from one side of the stage as the somber Aryeh and enter moments later as the animated Jacob.

The thrust stage of the Baxter Theater is the perfect environment for such an intimate story portrayed by a cast of three. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni

And while I loved Elizabeth Raetz’s sparkling Schaeffer (an art dealer/talent hunter inspired by Peggy Guggenheim), I on occasion struggled with her portrayal of Asher’s mother. It’s a very difficult role. Rivkeh is a balancing act in fragility and resilience. Early on in the play, Rivkeh is broken by a family tragedy that she needs to overcome so that she can intercede and mediate between Asher and his father.

There are a couple of moments that Raetz could have been more dynamic in her portrayal. However, I thought the moments her sorrow drives her to absolute hysteria were beautiful.

Without an intermission in My Name is Asher Lev, Noel Joseph Allain had the most challenging job of playing Asher from age six to his twenties without leaving the stage. With only slight costume changes like the removal of a jacket or a wig, Allain is solely responsible for tracing the development of Asher’s artistic gift and his struggle – even as a young child – to stay true to both his Hasidic culture and the art worlds of New York and Paris.

With such a small cast and personal story, My Name is Asher Lev was staged in the Play House’s Baxter Theatre. This was my first time seeing a show on the Baxter, which is actually a special 3/4 thrust theater built on top of the stage in the Bolton. It created a small environment perfect for telling the intimate story of the devastating effects larger beliefs can have on individuals.

My Name is Asher Lev / The Cleveland Play House 411:

A Journey Home in The Trip to Bountiful at Cleveland Play House

 

Lizan Mitchell stars as Carrie Watts in The Trip to Bountiful, directed by Timothy Douglas, on stage at Cleveland Play House in the Drury Theatre, February 4 – 27, 2011. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni

So much has been written about the concept of home and what it means to each person.  For me, it’s a place where I feel both comfortable and challenged, and I’ve spent the last 10 or so years trying to find that place.  I lived in other cities before and while I associate them with the family and friends that still live there, I’ve realized over the last year or so that Cleveland as a city and a place is the home I had been searching for.

Fortunately, I live in the place I consider home (and hope to for a long time). Others who aren’t as lucky may have been driven from there because of work, family or the myriad of other things that crop up throughout life. Some are able to reclaim that sense of home somewhere else; others are filled by a desire to return.  In The Trip to Bountiful at the Cleveland Play House, elderly widow Carrie Watts is compelled to steal away with her latest pension check and take one last trip to Bountiful, the small Gulf Coast town where she grew up and raised a family before moving to Houston.

The Trip to Bountiful is an American classic by Pulitzer Prize- and Academy Award-winner Horton Foote who also wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, Tender Mercies and a vast number of other works throughout his six-decade career. However, out of all of his plays, this is the first time a Horton Foote work has been produced at the Cleveland Play House.  To helm this co-production with Washington DC’s Round House Theatre, the Play House brought in Timothy Douglas as director.

The Cleveland Play House's production of The Trip to Bountiful was the first time it was reimagined with an African-American cast. Pictured here from left are Howard W. Overshown, Lizan Mitchell and Chinai J. Hardy, in their roles of Ludie, Carrie, and Jessie Mae, respectively. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni

As Douglas writes on the Cleveland Play House’s blog, The Trip to Bountiful had been on his director’s wish list for a long time. Although it was one of his favorite plays, he had not had the chance to direct it yet. Meanwhile, over the course of directing other plays, he’s worked with preeminent African-American actress Lizan Mitchell, who has appeared on Broadway in Electra, Having Our Say, and So Long on Lonely Street.

When Douglas most recently worked with her on August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, he came upon an idea to cast Mitchell as Carrie Watts. To do this, he went through the script to see how the story could be told from a different perspective. With the permission of the Foote Foundation and an endorsement by Hallie Foote, the playwright’s daughter, this revival is the first time an African-American cast has portrayed the Watts family.

This casting choice adds a new perspective to The Trip to Bountiful, shedding light on the African-American middle class in 1940s Texas. However, Douglas was careful to remain committed to Foote’s original intent by not changing the script, but allowing the audience’s knowledge of history, culture and race to enhance their viewing.

 

The scenic design (seen in the background here) was inspired by the murals of Houston artist John Thomas Biggers. (photo credit Roger Mastroianni)

Douglas, the cast and the crew did a fantastic job of balancing this non-traditional re-visioning with the story at the heart of Foote’s writing. The Trip to Bountiful is an intimate drama focusing on the challenges and struggles the members of the Watts family face. Trapped in a cramped apartment in Houston, the strong-willed Carrie lives with her soft-spoken son, Ludie, and self-absorbed daughter-in-law, Jessie-Mae.

Most of the play follows Carrie’s journey from Houston – where she is unhappy under Jessie-Mae’s bossy watch – to Bountiful – her hometown which she is driven to escape to before she dies. However, as unsympathetic as Jessie Mae is, actress Chinai J. Hardy did an excellent job in creating a few moments where the audience can relate to her. You see the frustration and sadness that Jessie-Mae and Ludie (a gentle and tender portrayal by Howard W. Overshown) struggle with because they are unable to conceive children and because Ludie’s career is not as promising due to an old illness. Regardless of the race of the actors, the audience understands Foote’s intent to explore family conflicts hidden quietly behind an apartment door.

While the cast (consisting of Hardy, Overshown, Lawrence Redmond, Jessica Frances Dukes, and Doug Brown) did an amazing job portraying Foote’s well-written and very human characters, it was clear why Douglas was inspired to direct Mitchell in the role of Carrie Watts.  While The Trip to Bountiful is a family drama, it’s also a coming of age story — just not the age that most of those stories are about.

Mitchell beautifully shows the unrest of an energetic woman who has experienced a lot and feels trapped in her current life. Having outlived most of her family and friends and fearing she’s become an imposition, the only thing she wants is to return to Bountiful where she hopes to reclaim a sense of belonging. When she gets there, she finds the peace she had been hunting for and makes a realization she didn’t expect to make.

While Carrie is physically frail, Mitchell brought a robust presence to the stage and kept the audience enrapt throughout the show. As the lights dimmed on the final scene and before the applause had even started, I could hear a number of audience members remarking outloud on her wonderful performance.

Jessica Frances Dukes, the actress who played Thelma (pictured on right), hosted the pre-show talkback which gave an educational, behind-the-scenes look at The Trip to Bountiful. Photo credit: Roger Mastroianni

Douglas and Set Designer Tony Cisek created a stunning visual backdrop to complement the actors. The designs were inspired by the artwork of John Thomas Biggers, an African-American illustrator, draftsman, muralist, painter, sculptor, lithographer and educator who worked in Houston during an era very similar to when the play is set. The influence of his work provided another layer to Douglas’ vision of an African-American retelling.

To understand the connections between Bigger’s work and the set design, the Cleveland Play House has included images of his works on dramaturgical boards throughout the lobby. The boards are just one aspect of the educational experiences the theatre provided to bring a deeper understanding to the show. The complimentary pre-show talkback, hosted by the actress who played Thelma, gave a behind-the-scenes look at the production process and a context for the play.

This intimate, re-imagined family drama was yet another example of the Cleveland Play House’s versatility. From their adaptation of The Kite Runner to the one-man holiday production of This Wonderful Life and the Ginger musical, each production this season has been refreshingly different (sadly, I missed The 39 Steps). Up next on the mainstage is another change of pace, My Name is Asher Lev. Meanwhile, the children’s series is currently featuring a reworking of The Little Mermaid with puppets.

This all leads up to their sixth annual FusionFest. Although the Play House’s productions consistently challenge and re-invent, FusionFest looks like it’ll be on a different level – bringing in new, multidisciplinary works for a ten-day festival. I’m really looking forward to this celebration of music, dance and theatre and plan to blog more details soon — including a look at some of the shows I’m most excited for.

The Trip to Bountiful / The Cleveland Play House 411:

 

Note: An earlier version of this post had the name of Howard W. Overshown’s character misspelled; it has now been changed to the correct spelling of Ludie throughout. The original version also said the 2011 FusionFest would be the 5th annual when it will be the 6th annual FusionFest. That’s what I get for not proofreading as thoroughly as normal (and as an editor I know better!)

This Wonderful Life at The Cleveland Play House – a Wonderful Way to Spend the Holidays

 

This Wonderful Life - a reimagining of the holiday classic - is at The Cleveland Play House until Dec. 19. (photo from clevelandplayhouse.com)

When It’s A Wonderful Life premiered in 1946, it was a box office flop.  Completely financed by Director Frank Capra and his Liberty Films studio for $3.8 million, its total run grossed only $3.3 million and resulted in the studio going bankrupt.  However, much like George Bailey in the story, the movie got a second chance when it accidentally entered the public domain due to a clerical error and tv stations all-over aired the film throughout the holidays.  Thus, it’s become a classic — a symbol of the holiday season, forever part of the American consciousness.

With its beloved status, there have been numerous adaptations of the story – from stage to radio, as well as a handful of spoofs.  In This Wonderful Life, currently playing at the Cleveland Play House, we’re given one of the freshest re-imaginings that I’ve seen of the inimitable original.  Conceived by Mark Setlock (a Cleveland native, now living in NY) and written by Steve Murray (a longtime film, theatre and book critic turned playwright), This Wonderful Life is a one-man retelling of It’s A Wonderful Life – part re-enactment, part commentary.

This Wonderful Life is told through the eyes of one actor – James Leaming. Leaming plays both the narrator, as well as all of the characters in the film. The play opens up on a fairly empty stage with a few props and set pieces and a small control panel. After talking to a few audience members before the show, Leaming casually enters the stage and delivers probably the best pre-show, turn-off-your-cell-phones speech I’ve ever heard. The show starts off with Leaming talking to the audience – very deftly putting the audience at ease.

 

James Leaming portrays the narrator and all of the residents of Bedford Falls in the one-man show This Wonderful Life (photo from clevelandplayhouse.com)

As a one-man show, This Wonderful Life was completely dependent upon its leading man – even moreso than The Kite Runner which was similarly dependent upon the success of its narrator (Jos Viramontes in the role of Amir). The one-man show is the marathon of acting — with one actor having to learn how to not just be a narrator guiding the story, but also how to distinguish a variety of characters from one another through his actions and voice. Leaming delivers on a 30+ character marathon for an hour and half without intermission.

Leaming struck an excellent balance between the script’s irreverence towards and insight into the original film.  Much like a group of loved ones celebrating the holidays together, there were a number of comedic moments  that poked gentle fun at It’s A Wonderful Life and the times it was filmed in – one of the funniest bits was Leaming talking about George and Mary’s first lipless, face-smashing kiss. However, it managed to be funny without being callous — the same sort of jesting we would do if we were watching it in our living rooms.

He also provided a heartfelt insight into the film.  About how it’s become a part of the American psyche, why George Bailey’s challenges resonates so strongly with us. At a particularly life-changing moment in George’s story, Leaming realizes that this holiday classic is not in fact a movie about Christmas and the holidays, but instead about every other day of the year and the hard decisions we have to make that get us from day to day.

In addition to poking gentle fun at It's A Wonderful Life, Leaming captures the moving realizations made by George Bailey and the other characters. (photo from clevelandplayhouse.com)

Leaming portrayed the town of Bedford Falls not just with his voice (though he did spot-on depictions of Jimmy Stewart’s Bailey, Mr. Potter and Clarence), but he also brought a great physicality to it. Often with one-man shows, you don’t have widesweeping action because you’re limited to how far one actor can move in a scene. However, Leaming was all over the place during scenes — magically exiting one side of the stage and while the action still seemed to be going on (thanks to a few well-timed sound cues), then entering from the other side of the stage.  And a soaring dive from the top of a staircase surprised everyone.

Although it was a one-man show, the technical aspects of the show played such an important part in the production that they were almost like another actor. The set itself was fairly straightforward with a small handful of set pieces and props including a desk, easel to prop up a few signs, and rolling staircase. However, the lighting and sound cues created a fully vibrant Bedford Falls, Clarence and the angels, and a complement to Leaming – allowing him to play off of something much like another actor would. Together, Leaming and the Play House artistic staff brought the wonder of the film to the stage.

The Cleveland Play House was filled with audience members after the show marveling at the lobby and halls decked for the holidays.

When we went to see This Wonderful Life, our evening was bookended by two free events offered throughout the show’s run: a preshow discussion of the play and the Cleveland Play House’s ongoing Festival of Trees celebration.

Prior to every performance, the Play House offers a free pre-show discussion for audience members.  It generally starts 45 minutes before curtain and when we attended Tuesday night, Associate Artistic Director Laura Kepley hosted the conversation.  We talked a lot about the film’s history and random pieces of trivia, as well as why it’s made such a lasting impression on the American psyche. Although we also talked very briefly about the play, the purpose of the pre-show discussion was not to cover what we were about to see but to put the performance into a context that would make for a fuller viewing experience. The Play House generally offers this pre-show discussion for each production, as well as post-show discussions after every third Wednesday evening performance and every third Sunday matinee.

Arrive 45-minutes before the show for a free pre-show discussion. The Cleveland Play House offers this for each production to help audiences understand the context behind the shows.

The Festival of Trees runs from now until December 30.  It’s free and open to the public, featuring more than 70 locally sponsored and professionally decorated holiday trees displayed throughout the Cleveland Play House.  We looked at a few on our way to the pre-show discussion as well as after the show while they were turning off the lights in parts of the building.  It was a beautiful site to see the variety of decorations – from the traditionally decked out Christmas trees, to trees that uniquely featured the Cleveland organizations they were sponsored by.  I loved the dog angel on top of the Cleveland APL’s tree, but the tree for the women pilots association was my absolute favorite.

If you’re planning on visiting the Play House and want to take a long lunch break next Thursday, they will be hosting a Holiday Luncheon starting at 11 am on Dec. 9.  Guests can enjoy a self-guided tour of the Festival’s trees, followed by a holiday program featuring a reading by Associate Artistic Director Kepley. Boxed lunches will be then served among the tree display prior to the Matinee performance of This Wonderful Life.  Tickets are $20 for the Holiday Program and Luncheon or $49 for Holiday Program, Luncheon and Matinee and can be purchased by calling 216.795.7000 ext. 4.

 

My personal favorite tree at the Play House's free Festival of Trees sponsored by a women's pilots association.

After the Play House announced last year that its five-year run of A Christmas Story was coming to an end, some may have wondered if anything could replace the Cleveland staple. With This Wonderful Life, they’ve re-introduced us to another holiday treasure.  Whether you see it at the Holiday Luncheon or go to one of the other performances prior to Dec. 19, a visit to the Play House is a wonderful way to celebrate the holidays in Cleveland.

This Wonderful Life / The Cleveland Play House 411: