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.
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.
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.
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: