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THEATER REVIEW My Name Is Asher Lev
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2014-09-03

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Playwright: adapted by Aaron Posner from the novel by Chaim Potok. At: Timeline Theatre Company at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-327-5252; www.timelinetheatre.com; $37-$50. Runs through: Oct. 18

To be a member of Brooklyn's Ladover Hassidic Jewish settlement in the 1940s and '50s was to occupy—take a deep breath, now—a subsect of a subsect of yet another subsect of a religious minority whose numbers recently suffered a severe reduction at the hands of first, the Germans, then the Russians. Combine these factors with the Biblical proscription against the forging of graven images, and there can be no unlikelier spawning ground for a genius whose compulsive response to the chaos of his surroundings is to draw pictures of it.

The conflict between these two spheres is immediately apparent in Brian Sidney Bembridge's scenic design for this Timeline Theatre production, its predominant feature being a steep staircase against a bare wall that will soon be covered in sketches we can only imagine. Upstairs is young Asher Lev's room, underneath are the musicians—violin, cello and clarinet—who provide a running commentary on the action, and at floor level, we see the world of his parents, whose obsession with the rescue and reparation of their persecuted brethren matches that of their son. This latter world also encompasses the wise rabbi who reluctantly permits Asher to study art under the tutelage of a sculptor who warns his pupil that the muse will lure him into dangerous realms, where his agony will eventually find its voice in the forbidden iconography of goyisch strangers.

"Be a great artist," Asher's mentor exhorts him. "It is the only justification for the pain you will cause." This pain dominates the themes in Chaim Potok's novel, narrated in first-person flashback by the "prodigy in payos" whose career-making masterwork ( foreshadowed in Bembridge's stage picture, but not revealed until the climactic moment ) will forever banish him from his hitherto-secure place in the universe. Aaron Posner's adaptation likewise roots its account in the perceptions of the devout acolyte portrayed with unflinching candor by Alex Weisman, while Danica Monroe and Lawrence Grimm acquit themselves in a diversity of roles, ranging from the troubled Rivkeh and Aryeh Lev to the secularized Jacob Kahn and his nude studio model.

Those whom the gods touch cannot escape undamaged. Our hero's origins may be parochial in the extreme, but his experience is that of every pilgrim forced to abandon home, community, family—every vestige of identity—to follow the call of the simultaneously "divine and demonic" creative power that art bestows upon disciples with the courage to receive it.


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