Peggy Sue Dunigan

The Rep’s “Asher Lev” is art to be taken seriously

By - Oct 5th, 2010 04:00 am
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Daniel Cantor, Cassandra Bissell and Jonathan Bock. All photos by Michael Brosilow.

Anyone who has found it heartbreaking to choose between great forces in their life will empathize with Asher Lev. The Stiemke’s captivating production reveals rich, intelligent performances that demonstrate that life, like the power of art, is, as Asher Lev describes, “both demonic and divine.”

Cassandra Bissell

On a barebones stage accented by easels, paint cans and large wooden picture frames, the young artist Asher Lev tells his story. When he does, light filters through two large windows on one side and shadows the wooden floor while the cream-colored brick background almost resembles a prison wall. As an artist and orthodox Jewish man, Asher Lev struggles with reconciling talent and personal testimony, a cultural prison his religious traditions have built around him.

This intriguing drama exploring how “art both heals and hurts” opens The Rep’s Stiemke Studio season with Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chaim Potok’s popular novel My Name is Asher Lev. The play comes fresh from its 2009 world premiere at Philadelphia’s Arden Theatre with the Milwaukee premiere offering Posner another opportunity to enhance his script. Posner carefully worked directly over the last decade with Potok and his wife, Adena, to capture Asher Lev’s coming of age story, as both artist and young man.

Through Posner’s retelling and under his sensitive direction, two actors, a woman (Cassandra Bissell) and a man (Daniel Cantor) seamlessly transform into all the people important in Asher Lev’s life over a 20-year period. Most importantly, Bissel and Cantor superbly recreate his mother and father as they try to understand their child prodigy who would rather draw lines on paper than read the Torah. While Lev’s father serves his faith by traveling around the world, Asher’s mother finds herself at odds between a husband’s demands and her only son’s evident gifts. Each actor adds incredible emotional weight to the production.

In his debut performance at the Stiemke, Jonathan Bock wholeheartedly imbues Lev with the ambiguity of an obedient son who still wishes to honor his own passion and identity. Drawing the nude or painting Christian crucifixions only serves to separate Lev further from everything he cherishes. Bock consistently reveals the persistent pain in these dilemmas Lev must face to eventually release him from his personal prisons. Even into the 20th century, drawing and painting were condemned as breaking the Second Commandment of Mosaic Law, a heresy.

Daniel Cantor and Jonathan Bock in “Asher Lev”.

The play’s respectfully constructed Jewish framework offers a unique opportunity to gain insight into a religious culture. Mores and tradition complicate things further as Lev confronts the already difficult decisions faced by any artist.

Lev’s father tells him his art is “Narishkeit,” foolishness and not to be taken seriously. But every moment in My Name is Asher Lev will be taken seriously because there is scant lost time on stage: Bock moves the sparse scenery himself while narrating the story. Every element to the no intermission production artistically interprets Posner’s poetic narrative.

The Rep’s Stiemke Studio presents My Name is Asher Lev though November 14. For information or tickets: 414.224.9490 or milwaukeerep.com

Categories: A/C Feature 3, Theater

0 thoughts on “The Rep’s “Asher Lev” is art to be taken seriously”

  1. Anonymous says:

    it sounds like a beautiful play.

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