BWW Reviews: MY NAME IS ASHER LEV Examines the Struggle Between Artistic Vision and Family Tradition
I walked out of the Fountain Theatre thinking back to the struggles I had gone through with my own father when my desire to be involved in theater went against what he deemed the right path for a proper young woman to take. In his mind and upbringing, that meant not going to college but getting married and having children. I can only hope that if he was still here today, he would be proud and happy with the choices I have made and the successes I have enjoyed on my own terms.
Such is the struggle that goes on in MY NAME IS ASHER LEV as a young painter must reconcile his remarkable artistic gifts with the austerity and singular devotion required by his faith, and especially his family. Set in Brooklyn's Hasidic Jewish community, this is the powerful story of a young and extremely gifted painter's struggle to become an artist at any cost - against the will of his parents, community and tradition. Exploring questions of art, family, religion and loyalty, this extraordinary adaptation is a compelling look at the cost of individuality.
Jason Karasev gives a truly remarkable performance as Asher Lev, never leaving the stage through the entire 100 minute show. Karasev instinctively morphs back to an energetic young boy, who at age 6 was already skilled in drawing portraits of his mother much to her dismay. "Why not draw the pretty flowers and not me?" she asks. But Asher is on a mission from that young age, even though he does not comprehend why the artistic vision that lives in his soul cannot be controlled. But what do you do when you know that the art you create might hurt the people you love?
Karasev is so much more than just an actor playing a role - he IS Asher Lev and allows you into his heart, mind and soul as he struggles through his decisions which lead him to a life of fame as an artist. You will feel his pain as well as his joy, and surely understand the pressures he faces to please his parents as well as himself. But when Asher states, "I am flooded with textures of the world, seeing everything with new eyes," you will know the artist has been set free as you gaze at the wonder Karasev emanates from his soul.
As Asher moves through his life, Joel Polis and Anna Khaja portray many people who cross his path and alter his course. As Asher's very traditional father Aryeh, Polis takes us through the struggles a father must face when a disobedient child also happens to be a brilliant artist in a world where art is not an acceptable lifestyle to pursue. You will cringe knowing he really means it when he tells Asher, "It would be better you should not be born than to draw like this." Then again, you know his concern comes from love as he is trying to shield his son from a life of pain as an outcast in their community for drawing pictures of Jesus and copying the portraits of naked women he has seen at age 12 during a visit to a museum.
Polis also plays the learned Rebbe who asks Asher's father to travel to Vienna to assist in his religious work. While Asher's father is away, Asher gets more into his paintings and neglects his Jewish studies. Yet the gift will not be denied, and finally the Rebbe intercedes and allows Asher to study under one of the greatest living artists, Jacob Kahn (Joel Polis in another masterful character portrayal), a non-observant Jew who is an admirer of the Rebbe. Asher grows up to be a formidable artist as an apprentice of Jacob Kahn, becoming a true World citizen.
The brilliant Anna Khaja portrays Asher's mother Rivkeh with a deep understanding of being caught between encouraging your child to succeed while placating your husband's overbearing and controlling nature. Khaja emotionally embodies this tortured woman right down to her bones. Her transformation upon the death of her brother will tear at your heartstrings as you get lost in the depths of her sorrow.
As worldly arts patron Anna, Khaja walks in as a stylish milk-clad woman who immediately recognizes the brilliance of 13-year old Asher after seeing samples of his drawings. Khaja's impeccable facial expressions move from boredom through overwhelming wonder without a word being spoken.
During Asher's lessons with Jacob, Khaja walks in as Rachel to pose nude so Asher can perfect a much-needed artistic skill. Karasev's Asher is so comically uncomfortable trying to come to terms with looking at a naked woman in the flesh rather than on a canvas in a museum as it is so against his religious training. But look he does and art he does create!
All three actors will draw you in so compellingly as they move from scene to scene that you will leave the theater feeling you have just been spent time with all of Chaim Potok's marvelous characters who have been brought to life before your eyes as well as in your hearts.
Kudos to director Stephen Sachs for keeping the pace fluid between the time-jumping scenes, and for casting actors who so totally grasp the characters that the blocking feels natural and never forced. Producers Simon Levy and Deborah Lawlor are to be commended for assembling the skilled production team who turn the intimate space into worlds of wonder: Set design by Jeff McLaughlin; wonderfully mood-enhancing lighting design by Ric Zimmerman; original music and sound design by Lindsay Jones; costume design by Shon LeBlanc; wig design by Diane Martinous; prop design by Misty Carlisle; dialect coach Tyler Seiple; and production stage manager Terri Roberts.
MY NAME IS ASHER LEV performances are on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm and Sundays at 2 pm, through April 19 (dark March 15, March 16 and April 5). Tickets are $34 (reserved seating). On Thursdays and Fridays only, seniors over 65 and students with ID are $25. The Fountain Theatre is located at 5060 Fountain Avenue (at Normandie) in Los Angeles. Secure, on-site parking is available for $5. The Fountain Theatre is air-conditioned and wheelchair accessible. For reservations and information, call 323-663-1525 or go to www.FountainTheatre.com