Directed by Harry Parker
Set Design – Clare Floyd Devries
Lighting Design – John Leach
Sound Design – David H.M. Lambert
Costume Design – Sarah Tonemah
Properties Design – Hannah Law
Stage Manager – Sarahi Salazar
Production Consultant – Rabbi Sidney Zimelman
Sam Swanson – Asher Lev
Lisa Fairchild – The Women
David Coffee – The Men
Reviewed Performance 1/31/2015
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
If you’re an artist, are you willing to suffer and sacrifice for your art? This is a question artists struggle with and the answers are difficult.
Asher Lev wants to be an artist. He’s willing to fight his Hasidic family and cultural heritage to make it happen. What he believes goes against his life’s teachings and consumes him for decades. What is a reasonable price for artistic vision and the full expression of what you believe?
That Asher Lev’s life parallels author Chaim Potok’s is not lost on his readers. Potok’s writing expressed the experience of Jewish life in Brooklyn as few others could, though he was Orthodox, not Hasidic. With stories like The Chosen and The Promise, the writer and painter who eventually became a Rabbi, made Jewish struggles for daily life real for non-Jewish readers and showed the common struggles all people face. By the time he wrote My Name Is Asher Lev and its follow-up, The Gift of Asher Lev, Potok was a preeminent voice within the Orthodox and Hasidic communities in Brooklyn.
My Name is Asher Lev is premiering in North Texas at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth’s Sundance Square. Adapted for stage by Aaron Posner in 2009, the play is “an extension of the directing process” for Posner, where “your goal is to be true to the intent of the original author.” As a writer and director, Posner likely had his share of challenges finding his artistic voice, but he let Potok’s story speak through him.
Circle’s production was directed by Harry Parker. The creative challenge of a play like Posner’s is to create the breadth of such a large story and wide range of characters with only three actors. One plays Asher and the other two play multiple characters each. And Lev’s character covers the early decades of his life. “It’s a memory play,” Parker told Texas Jewish Post. “The character is about 30 but is playing scenes in which he is 6, 7, 12 and 15-years-old. He is bouncing around in time and in his memory.” Parker is up to the task, with a keen eye towards making the story come to life in an interesting setting. Who better to tell a story of the struggles of an artist than another artist?
Parker engaged a production team that brought the artistic truth of the 1950s to life in an impressionistic setting on Circle’s stage, and what they did with the small space was a bit magical.
A minimal set with a few chairs and desk was designed by Clare Floyd Devries. What drew attention was a set of large, non-specific art frames hanging and standing in the back of the stage. These provided a thematic background but also a partial shield for actors to dress and wait for scenes “on-stage.” But the pieces weren’t window dressing; they also became important parts of the story. The set also allowed for imaginary decorations with which the actors interacted.
The stage was lit brightly by John Leach, interspersed a few times when dimming seemed appropriate and punctuated with a few colorful washes on the art frames at the back. Circle’s theater space allows an intimate connection between audience and actors. Keeping actors’ faces brightly lit supported that connection. The production also didn’t require a complicated sound scheme, but rather a subtle subtext by David H. M. Lambert’s periodic, non-descript thematic music. It was there, but not intrusive. A few small sound effects helped to transport us to other places in the story.
Minimal quick-change costumes were also the order of the day. Sarah Tonemah’s choices felt correct for each character in colors that seemed right. Asher Lev wore brown slacks and brown sweater vest throughout. Revkeh, his mom, wore a simple brownish skirt and grey headdress, much like Golde in Fiddler. Aryeh, Asher’s dad, wore a traditional black and white suit with tzitzit fringe from his prayer shawl hanging below his jacket. These pieces made the actors seem “Jewish” in a 1950’s Brooklyn timeframe and helped actors embody the nature of their characters. The challenge was that two actors played a variety of people, and the costuming differences for each character were inspired yet simple enough to change in-view of the audience.
Hannah Law provided a small set of properties to parallel the minimalistic vision. Paper, brushes, paint easel, books; simple things people toy with as they go about their day. Properties in plays are often skipped over in reviews, but actors know how important they are to the action of the story. Law really supported these actors well.
The older male parts were played by David Coffee. Coffee is a consummate character actor who always finds a small sparkling piece of jewelry in each character to show us. As Areyh, Asher’s ultra-traditional Hasidic father, Coffee adopted a bit of Brooklynese and portrayed a strong, stern father with rigid views of Jewish life. He walked and talked with strength and will power and pronounced his views like edicts, with strong vocal power and a pointed finger. But the antics of “rebellious” Asher shocked Areyh, and in this dismay, Coffee showed a vulnerable side with weaker, questioning, speech. Coffee changed to Asher’s Uncle, who loves Asher boldly and supports his dream and for this Coffee became larger than life, expanded physically in all directions, speaking loudly and joyously. As The Rebbe, the revered Hassidic Rabbi, Coffee aged. He walked somewhat stooped, talked older and wiser, and showed us a quiet reverence. I think his most fun role was Jacob Kahn, the artist engaged by The Rebbe to teach Asher to paint. Flamboyant in dress, voice and facial reactions, Coffee gave this man a lush artistic-diva feel with long, rounded movements, flowery hand motions, and deep passionate speech. French to the core, Coffee made the lessons he gave to the young protégé incredibly fun to watch.
Lisa Fairchild, like Coffee, had the ability to play each female part differently in small ways that made them interesting and unique. As mother, Revkeh, she was a meek Jewish mother tiptoeing a fine line between her son and husband. She stooped a bit in the beginning, eyes lowered but showing a deep abiding love for both. But there was still a sense of subservience. As she experienced heartaches, she became bolder, stood taller, and voiced her text more forcefully. Then she shifted into Anna Schaeffer, the sophisticated New York art gallery owner and we saw a woman of business, showing confidence in her rapid stride and ability to spar with Jacob Kahn’s bluster. Her dress changed to modern American and she loosened her hair to become more revealing. Here, she was irreverent and maybe a bit irreligious, scoffing at Asher’s beliefs. Later, Fairchild became a model Jacob Kahn brought so Asher could learn to paint real nudes. She was much softer, more sexy and yet very confident of her body. Her red robe became a silky slip and her gaze at Asher had understanding eyes. It was amazing how Fairchild made these costume changes and slipped so comfortably into a each new personality.
Sam Swanson was Asher Lev and equally skillful in his work with the title character. Swanson was Asher at 30, narrating memories of the tumultuous times in his early life. But in those stories he dropped into Asher’s skin at younger ages, and each of these required a bit of new characterization. Swanson made it look comfortable and easy. He didn’t so much re-live the age as much as he slipped into another timeframe in his storytelling and used his regular voice for the words of the child. It was effective, as there were subtle differences in his phrasing. At age six and seven, Swanson portrayed curiosity about the world and confusion when Asher’s parents scolded him. His voice narrowed and inflections changed. As a ten-year-old, Swanson added more force, more demand. As a thirteen-year-old, his words sounded like a teenager questioning his place, his artistic vision, and his lack of parental and community support. You could hear in his emphasis and urgency that this teen was searching and expecting answers. Asher slowly found his artistic voice through his search for balance between a passionate vision and condemnation. Swanson phrased the young man’s words more carefully, more maturely. As a ninety-minute memory play, Swanson had a lot of text to cover and seemed to revel in the use of the language.
My Name Is Asher Lev at Circle is not Chaim Potok’s novel. It’s an overview of the central themes in his story. The audience is witness to the challenge most artists face, a search for voice and the courage to express it. It is more universal than a Jewish experience. And it’s not even really about artists, for since the beginning of time, children have struggled to find their voices against the resistance of their parents. Asher represents all children, the boy struggling with his father, the girl separating from her mother, the young adult straining to discover the world. Areyeh and Revkeh represent generations of parents trying to hold on to their children, to keep them safe from the pain of life. These are universal themes.
Jacob Kahn tells Asher, “Art is whether there is a scream in you wanting to get out in a special way.” My Name Is Asher Lev speaks to everyone, including artists, in a special way. It’s an art that wants to get out and it’s worth the visit to Circle Theatre to see these artists tell the story.
MY NAME IS ASHER LEV
230 West 4th Street
Fort Worth, TX 76102
Plays through March 7th
Thursday at 7:30 pm, Friday-Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Saturday at 3:00 pm
Ticket prices are $20-$30 Thursday and Saturday matinee, and $25-$35 Friday and Saturday evening.
For information and to purchase tickets, visit www.circletheatre.com or call their box office at 817-877-3040.