Based on the novel by Chaim Potok
Directed by Moira Blumenthal
Moira Blumenthal Productions and Encounters@Shalom
39 Burton Street, Darlinghurst
Season: 8 – 29 May
What do you do when two critical elements of your life reach a pinnacle of contention? For Asher Lev, a Hasidic Jewish boy, the conservative nature of his religion becomes at stake when he realises his passion as an artist. If free expression conflicts with his religion and his religion restricts his capacity to be a free artist, one must prevail. This production, directed by Moira Blumenthal and presented by Encounters@Shalom invokes an honest reckoning with one’s identity and personal obligations depending on the life choices one makes. Spanning a number of years throughout Asher Lev’s life, a cast of three depict the numerous individuals who were formative in his life and seem to be emblematic of the various confining (and sometimes liberating) pressures on a young person. As ‘teen-angsty’ as I might be making it sound, the show is funny, saddening and thought-provoking. A good mix.
When I interviewed the cast and director for this show a few weeks ago, I could sense their eager anticipation for the show and reverence for the abundance of ideas inherent in the text. However, they did refer to their rather short rehearsal time, wishing they could indulge in the gold in the text for longer to sufficiently mine it for all it’s worth. When seeing the show, I could understand the restrictive nature of a short preparation time - it is a show that benefits from a bit of time to ‘marinate’ and relish all the juicy flavour. However, by this point in the season I’d imagine the cast will have properly settled into the performance space as a homely environment and have lost the more static feel in a few of the scenes. Moreover, commendations are due to these actors who have managed to create depth in characters who only appear in the script for a scene or two. Their extensive experience on the stage is evident in their performances. John O’Hare plays Asher Lev for the entirety of the show, following his journey, however he takes on the challenge of portraying him at different ages. This is a significant challenge given that O’Hare has an essence of maturity as a performer, trying to then bring a five year old to life on stage. He brings sweetness to the younger depictions of Asher, however his performance is most engaging as he ages and confronts his religious upbringing more directly. Annie Byron plays all of the female characters in the piece, traversing emotions of grief and silliness between scenes. She exhibits tremendous versatility and displays great conviction whatever the role. As Asher’s mother, she manages to inject humour into the work at points, in spite of the devastating sadness the character feels. Tim McGarry plays all of the male characters in the play, other than Asher of course, and also manages to transform himself vocally and sometimes physically, with the aid of a minor costume shift, to evolve into an entirely different person. Each of the actors navigate the proxemics of their character relationships as they vacillate between playing characters who are intimate with each other to characters who are rigidly divided from. Each performer achieves a formidable feat.
Set and lighting design work seamlessly together, with the most basic design and yet it is highly effective in evoking emotion and working functionally to illustrate multi-faceted settings. Hugh O’Connor is responsible for set design, consisting primarily of a number of white panels, framed to concomitantly resemble windows, and yet at other points transform into trees for outdoor landscapes and the framing can also transform into the cross – to depict the contentious crucifixion image painted by a Hasidic Jew. Emma Lockhart-Wilson’s lighting design interacts wonderfully with O’Connor’s design, instantly changing the atmosphere of the stage and metamorphosing a sense of place.
The play has been adapted from the novel My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok, by Aaron Posner. There has been more than one adaptation of this novel to the stage, interpreting the tale from different points in Asher’s life. The issue with Posner’s adaptation is the restrictive nature of narrating a story across a long period of time. Though the audience is drawn into the story continually at different points, as snapshots through time are depicted, it feels stunted when you are starting to really be engaged by a story, only for the narrative to halt and move on. Moira Blumenthal’s direction draws out the beauty in the individual snapshot scenes, creating some moving moments, however it was difficult to overcome the structure set in place by Posner’s writing. Whilst I found this troublesome, the structure does allow an audience to understand holistically Asher’s experience over the course of his life, which might not otherwise be achieved.
This production is a hearth of fascinating ideas that should rock any artist’s (aspiring, experienced or otherwise) perception of their responsibilities, especially in relation to spirituality and religion. Furthermore, likely anyone exposed to religion has experienced its restrictive nature when applied thoughtlessly and conservatively, rather than with probing, critical thinking and ownership for one’s personal beliefs. Even if you’re a person who relates to neither of these notions, at the core of this story is personal discovery – and that’s something, I might go as far to say, that is universal.