Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Unicorn "My Name is Asher Lev" review by BobEvans

The Unicorn's Asher Lev depicts struggle for artistic acceotance Rating: 5

My Name is Asher Lev
by Unicorn Theatre

Probably nothing is more normal than a father-son conflict and the mother who stands between the two male personas. So, expect that in The Unicorn's current production, My Name Is Asher Lev. But, be prepared for Jewish Orthodox tradition to spar with the artistic world of the Goyim.

The touching story of a young and gifted artist forces him to choose between the life his father wants for him and his uncontrollable, God-given talent that obsesses and drives him to revolt against all he's been taught. Religion and tradition verses artistic expression and personal growth pull Asher Lev to opposite extremes.

Make plans now to see My Name is Asher Lev the play by Aaron Posner based on the Chaim Potok book of the same name which opened at The Unicorn Theater, April 20, to a full house. According the box office, several shows for next week are already sold out. The show's popularity may cause the run to be extended.

To prepare for the title role of Asher Lev, Doogan Brown met with Orthodox Rabbi, attended an Orthodox service, and said he asked a lot of questions to understand the tradition and depth of faith of the Jewish community. He also said he spent time with local artists and in some studios to understand the aesthetics of their medium. That, and the direction of Cynthia Levin helped prepare him for the monumental submersion into the character of Asher Lev.

The story develops on many levels, all involving classic themes that many audience members understand regardless of tradition or religion. The 90-minute play examines, a tormented mother pulled between love for her husband and support of her son. The show examines the sacrifices an artist makes for his art and the inner torment as he wrestles with success. However, the central conflict rages over traditions of the father and the desires of the son.

Art is not considered as a possible career or vocation for an Hasidic Jew, yet Asher Lev's native talent drives his artistic obsessions. And, yes, Asher Lev is obsessive with his quest for art, expression, understanding, and acceptance--acceptance he believes can never come from a father whom he disappoints.

Three actors create the characters for My Name is Asher Lev. Count on each to present delineated characters on stage as they weave the story of a young artist as he fights to embrace the tradition and culture of his family and the opposite world of an artist. Watch the two other actors as they craft different personas as Asher Lev grows and matures through the play.

As the main character, Asher Lev, portrayed by Doogin Brown, addresses the audience as his life unfolds to the spectators. Use of dramatic lighting and staging allows him to meld from narrator (Asher Lev) to different scenes and stages of the artist's life, from age six at one point, to 10 at another, to 13, and then on to adulthood. His character changes as he matures and the demands of home, school, and art pull him is several directions. Skillfully, Brown wears all the aspects of his character with confidence, poise, and vulnerability. He gives a stunning portrayal of a young man raging an internal war so that the artist in him emerges and grows.

As his mother, Manon Halliburton adds layer upon layer to her performance. As a supporting mother who takes pleasure in watching her son's childish drawing, she demonstrates the motherly love all remember from their childhoods. As a wife, she displays struggles to please her husband. Those two characteristics clash as the divide between father and son develop. Then, there is the relationship with her brother, both a brotherly-love relationship and later the determination to fulfill his destiny. And, that's just one of the characters she presents. Another character, an art dealer and exhibitor bring forth a whole different persona, complete with physical body movement, accent, and a different attitude. While it's not a large part in the show, it shows her range and ability to make character changes in a performance. Her third character is a brief but raw artistic model.

The acting demands of the third actor take him in into four completely different personas -- the father, the rabbi, an uncle, and an artist. Mark Robbins distinguishes each persona with a different attitude and tone. He alters from the gruff and displeased parent to the jovial uncle. He changes to an elderly Rabbi and teacher to a gregarious artist. Watching him change from one to another amazes the audience. Each character adds layer upon layer as the show progresses. His struggles to accept his son provide much of the drama of the show. His two larger parts, the father and the artist could not be further apart and he changes quickly from one to the other. Both show different aspects. One is a disappointed father struggling to accept his son and new ideas far from the tradition he's lived. The other shows the aftermath of escaping the tradition and living the life of an artist. Both characters show strength. Both demonstrate his understanding of the parts and a !
masterful delivery of opposite characters.

Director Cynthia Levin took care in this production to select and work with actors to create the difficult story. Even though the play is a drama, many scenes and lines bring laughs from the audience. And to add a personal touch to the production, Levin uses family heirlooms in the as props and costumes.

Levin's grandparents came to the U.S. from a Jewish community in Russia, as did the Lev family in the play. The candlesticks on the set and the shawl worn by Asher Lev's mother were brought from Russia by Levin's grandmother.

Also worth noting is the original music written for The Unicorn's production of My Name Is Asher Lev, composed by Greg Mackender. Kudos go to the lighting crew for such beautiful and dramatic lighting design that allow the scenes to change as the characters move from one area of the stage to another. And, the one set for the show works as the home, the artist studio, the gallery, etc, mainly changes by lighting cues. The sound crew makes the entirety of th e play easily heard, even over chuckles from the audience at funny lines.

Overall, The Unicorn's production of My Name Is Asher Lev is amazing. Audiences will love the show and be enthralled with the story and acting. The show showed polish, even on opening night. Those unfamiliar with the Jewish tradition need not fear the production. Even the Hebrew words used in the show are cleverly explained in English via the dialogue, so nothing is lost in the delivery or message. The script carefully explains the words and the traditions. No one will leave questioning the theme or not understanding the conflict.

Expect this show to be extended in its run. Early sell outs mean that as word spreads, more sell outs await. For a show to possess four sellouts upon its opening means a lot of pre-show interest. Do not be disappointed and locked out of this masterful drama and the performances that enliven it.

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