You would be forgiven for thinking that My Name is Asher Lev is simply a play about a young, gifted Orthodox Jewish artist who is caught between his artistic ability and the Orthodox community. That’s how the play, an adaptation of Chaim Potok's novel of the same name, is billed. Nothing that departs from this straightforward approach is overtly recognized by the narrator - Asher himself - as otherwise. However, this is art about art; there are multiple layers.
Asher first appears to the audience as an adult narrator, after a successful and controversial gallery show. For the next 90 minutes, he takes the audience back through his own upbringing, beginning as a young artistic prodigy, through his teenage years, then through his early adulthood, including artistic training under the watchful gaze of an older, successful Jewish artist and mentor who endured his own cultural struggles. We see Asher’s first successful show, and the mental and emotional strain that comes with success. Eventually, we see the torment he experiences when his parents find his artistic vision offensive, leading to familial ostracism, social exile and public attack.
On a purely technical level, My Name is Asher Lev is perfectly produced. As in Twice Told Tales of the Decameron, Asher Lev makes use of fewer actors who play a variety of roles. Noel Joseph Allain plays Asher at every stage of his life, from a child to an adult. Elizabeth Raetz plays his mother, Rivkeh Lev; Anna Schaeffer, a successful gallery owner and curator; and Rachel, a nude model. Tom Allen Robbins plays Asher’s father, Aryeh Lev; his uncle Yitzchok; the Rebbe, or spiritual leader of the Orthodox sect; and Jacob Kahn, Asher’s artistic mentor. Asher’s character changes ages simply by proclamation; Allain says, “Six years old,” and performs a scene from his childhood.
The other actors go through a variety of minimalist costume changes (or, in Rachel's case, costume discharges) in order to play their characters. Raetz and especially Robbins do a brilliant job of changing characters with felicity, inhabiting each as if it was the only one he or she had to perform. My only complaint is that Allain’s portrayal of Asher at different ages – 6, 10, 12, 13 and so on – seems forced.
The problem I had with the play is a sense of false advertising: Asher Lev could be – and is – superficially interpreted about a conflict between some close-minded branch of Judaism and a free-thinking artistic integrity, between a creative prodigy and a society that doesn’t seem to be able to handle his genius. However, it is much more universal than that. My Name is Asher Lev is about intergenerational conflict and the importance of parenting. Indeed, it offers a stark warning to the overindulgent helicopter parents of our age – a message that is far more important than that of Asher v. Orthodoxy. Continued on page two...