Theatre Review: “My Name is Asher Lev” at the Phoenix

On Friday, October 29, 2010, I drove to the Mass. Ave. theatre district of downtown Indianapolis to see the Phoenix Theatre’s production of “My Name is Asher Lev.”  This Midwest premiere was directed by Martha Jacobs and produced by Bryan Fonseca.  The script was adapted by Aaron Posner from the novel by Chaim Potok (which I have not yet read, but now want to.)

I loved this show!  Here is what I wrote right away the next Monday morning on Lou Harry’s arts & entertainment blog for the Indianapolis Business Journal:

“I felt lucky, later in the weekend, to be at the Phoenix Theatre to see ‘My Name is Asher Lev.’ The three actors in it are outstanding, and the story of a Hasidic Jew who becomes a revered and reviled painter in the larger world had me fighting back sobs.  I am looking forward to writing about it on my own blog soon.”

God laughed at my “soon” but I do finally have this morning free in which to write, so here is my more detailed response to “My Name is Asher Lev”:

What the Show Is About

The fourth wall drops away as the adult Asher Lev talks to us directly about how he became notorious as the painter of “the Brooklyn crucifixes.”  The fourth wall drops back into place every time we join him in flashback scenes from his life, starting when he was a very young boy growing up in a Hasidic Jewish community in post-World War Two Brooklyn and discovered that he loved to draw.  Not only does he love it, but he is very good at it.

We see his family’s mixed reactions to his gift, and his religious community’s, and later the reactions of the larger world, but also his own.  Is his gift from God or from the dark side?  Is he responsible to his people or to his art or somehow both?  What does it mean to have the task of making the world more holy?  Why does he feel so torn about making and selling and exhibiting his art?  Is art something that heals or hurts?  Is his gift demonic or divine?

It’s as if he wants to explain it all, not only to us, but also to himself.

His story shows that the struggles of a gifted artist are complex.  Being an artist takes many kinds of courage.

But beyond that, his story shows that for each of us, “gifted” or otherwise, the journey to our authentic self fulfilling our calling is complex and on-going as well.  There is no such thing as a simple coming-of-age or a simple community membership or a simple relationship with God. 

This is not depressing.  On the contrary, it is a relief to have this struggle articulated and acknowledged.

Artistic Considerations

No one in the show says “God.”  Instead, a wealth of Hebrew and Yiddish words in the script conveys both spiritual and cultural meaning even to those of us that don’t know those languages.  

It also gives the show a rich aural texture, especially when combined with the specificity of the sound design, which includes accordion(?) pieces and violin strains delicately placed.  (My program doesn’t say who designed the sound or selected the music.  Maybe technical director Nolan Brokamp?)

Set designer James Gross makes wonderful use of the intimate stage in the Phoenix’s Frank and Katrina Basile space.  The set is basically divided into three cozy parts: the Lev family’s Brooklyn kitchen, Asher’s childhood bedroom, and the studio of his mentor, Jacob Kahn, where he goes when he is a teenager, with other scenes appearing as needed via the movement of a chair and the changing of the lights.  The set never seems too small, but the coziness enhances the interconnectedness of the various aspects of Asher’s life.

The lighting design is warm and wonderful, too.  For example, Laura Glover somehow fills the tiny studio (and by tiny I mean the size of a closet) with light that makes us feel we are surrounded by huge, floor-to-ceiling windows high up somewhere in Manhattan and that it is natural light streaming in on the model and the easels. (Anthony Morton is the stage manager.  Cody Grady is the light and sound operator.)

There are empty gilded frames and blank canvases in the studio.  Actually, all of the canvases and drawing papers in the show are blank, leaving us to imagine what the characters are talking about and feeling when they look at them.  For this show, this is a much more powerful choice than trying to get someone to paint specific pieces to use as props.  (Ashley Keifer is the costume and prop intern.)

The three actors, as I mentioned earlier, are outstanding.  Bill Simmons portrays all of the male roles except Asher himself.  From Asher’s father to his rabbi to his artistic mentor and more, Bill is specific and convincing in differentiating the various characters with only subtle costume changes to help him.  (This is no criticism of Lori Raffel’s costume design.  The costumes all enhance the character’s personalities and times and places very well.)  Wendy Farber is equally versatile and adept at portraying all of the female characters, from Asher’s mother to his artistic agent to his first live model and more.  Each character gets to be seen in his or her full complexity.

John Michael Goodson plays “only” Asher Lev, but he plays him convincingly at various ages, from six years old on up.  There is humor in this piece largely because John lets Asher’s love and respect and mischievousness shine through along with his earnestness and confusion and frustration and stubbornness and pain.

Audience and Appeal Factors

This is a very cathartic piece.  Or it was for me, anyway, but I imagine that many adults will respond empathetically to its beautiful and thought-provoking presentation of the complexity of life’s struggles.  I think if I had seen this show when I was younger, I would have responded more to the theme of the courage and strength that being an artist requires.  Now, however, I keep coming back to the theme of the courage and strength that staying present in the tension of authentic, compassionate living requires. 

In any case, this is a show for people who like their theatre to be substantive and moving as well as beautiful and entertaining.

It is also a show for people that appreciate theatre that is well-grounded in terms of specific times, places, and cultures.

There is no nudity or cursing (or, for that matter, crucifixions) in this piece, but I still wouldn’t bring children to it.

And on a more personal note, if you have happen to be a reviewer, Asher’s response to being reviewed offers another good layer of food for thought. 

Box Office

The Phoenix’s newest Audience Development Associate, Melissa Gutierrez (aka “Mo”), gave the curtain talk and reminded us that “My Name is Asher Lev” continues at the Phoenix Theatre through Sunday, November 21, 2010 in the Frank & Katrina Basile underground theatre space.  By the way, I was delighted to see Frank and Katrina in the audience the night I saw “My Name is Asher Lev.”  They give so much to the Indianapolis arts community in terms of financial support; I am glad they get to enjoy their gifts, too.

Here is more box office info from the press release that Phoenix Marketing and Media Relations Director Lori Raffel sent me:

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Ticket Prices

All seating is general admission on a first-come, first-served basis and all Thursday tickets are $15, thanks to a grant by Duke Energy; Friday, Saturday and Sunday performances are $25. Young adult tickets – for individuals age 20 and under – are $15 for all performances. Curtain times are: Thursdays at 7pm; Friday and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm.

Doors open ½ hour prior to curtain for seating. The Phoenix Pub, located inside the theatre, offers beer, wine, soft drinks, coffee, and bottled water, as well as treats, and all refreshments may be taken into the theatre and consumed during the performance.

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Xmas is Coming

Someone asked me this week if I had ever been to the Phoenix’s holiday show because her quilting club was thinking of going.  Some of their members had seen “A Very Phoenix X-mas” in previous years and enjoyed it, but my friend had never been.

“Of course you should go!” I told her.  I always say that, but I added that this year is the fifth year of the “Xmas” show so the Phoenix is doing a “best of” show, which means I am looking forward to it even more than usual.  It is always a good smorgasbord of short plays, music, and dancing – and always irreverent but never mean-spirited.

“It’s not like a Hallmark card,” I told my friend, “but there are elements of generosity and spiritual awareness along with the humor.  You do leave feeling good.”

You can read my detailed thoughts on three of the past shows here (2009), here (2008) and here (2007, when I was writing for IndianaAuditions.com.) 

I bet my friend and her quilting buddies will have a great time at this year’s show, too.

“Regifted: A Very Phoenix Xmas 5” opens November 26, 2010 and is scheduled to run through December 19, 2010.

‘See you at the theatres! – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com

(Photography by Julie Curry. The actors in the top photo are, from left to right: Wendy Farber, Bill Simmons, and John Michael Goodson. )

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