Only in his hometown and in his own household is a prophet without honour, a Jewish craftsman once said. One could easily say the same of artists. All the more so if one’s home is a Hasidic Jewish community, and one’s artistic acclaim is gained through paintings of the definitively Christian image of the Crucifixion.
My Name Is Asher Lev, currently on at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts until October 2nd, tells the story of a young gifted artist and observant Jew, struggling with questions of authenticity, truth, and conflicted loyalty within his religious community and the wider world; in particular, the artistic world, which, he is warned, has traditionally belonged to the “goyim and pagans”.
The play is based on the novel of the same name by Chaim Potok, written in 1972. Narrated largely by the character of Asher himself, played convincingly with clarity and passion by David Reale, the ninety minute play takes us through four movements, each one a development of Asher’s artistic and personal identity.
Alex Poch-Goldin and Ellen David give beautifully honest and nuanced performances as Asher’s parents and a host of other characters, including Asher’s mentor Jacob Kahn, the Rebbe, and Anna Schaeffer, the owner of the art gallery who buys Asher’s paintings.
A piece that wrestles with subject matter that is profoundly interior can run the risk of being overly plodding but not so here. Steven Schipper’s clean staging and direction keeps the existential struggle on its feet, brought to life through the relationships that Asher has with each character in the story, and in his movement about the stage. Both the art studio and Asher’s home occupy the same physical space; it is not the set, but Asher, propelled by his passion, that moves between those worlds which represent his faith and his art.
Indeed, it is not until he leaves home and goes to Europe, that Asher begins to reconcile those worlds. It is, amongst other things, Asher’s encounter with Michelangelo’s Pietà which moves him in the direction of his distinctive artistic voice. (Interestingly, Potok’s own decision to commit to writing stories began due to his reading Evelyn Waugh’s Catholic novel Brideshead Revisited, an experience Potok described as life changing.)
In an interview with American Jewish author Harold Ribalow, Potok described arriving at the concept of the observant Jew identifying with the Christ image as one of the longest and most agonizing processes he’s ever lived through, one he fought to avoid.
The role of Jacob Kahn, the secular father figure in the story, clearly exists in part to give voice to the particular artistic philosophy which influences Asher – chiefly, that an artist’s responsibility is to himself and his art alone, a distinctly Romantic idea which continues to hold sway in modern times, an idea sharply at odds with Asher’s belief that “Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh”: all Jews are responsible for one another. When clarifying his faith for gallery owner Anna Schaeffer, Asher states as part of his beliefs that he believes it is man’s task to make the world holy. Anna bluntly responds that he is entering the wrong world.
While that claim that art is antithetical to holiness goes largely unquestioned in the play, it sets up a growing conflict for the young genius, one that comes to a moving climax during the gallery showing of his paintings, among them, the controversial Brooklyn Crucifixion. Interestingly, all canvases used on stage remain blank throughout the course of the show, and indeed, the plain floor, walls and curtains also seemed to present themselves as potential canvases waiting to be filled, perhaps, by the audience’s imagination.
Altogether, the play is a thought provoking work, profoundly human and thoroughly inspiring. In the words of Karol Wojtyla, “Even beyond its typically religious expressions, true art has a close affinity with the world of faith…art is by its nature a kind of appeal to the mystery.”
And it is indeed absurd to apologize for a mystery.
Review by Contributing Editor Alisha Ruiss
“My Name is Asher Lev”, presented by the Segal Centre for Performing Arts and co-produced with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, continues at the Segal (5170 Ch. Côte-Ste-Catherine) to October 2nd, 2016. Tickets range from $24.50 (Student) to $60 (Regular) and can be purchased online or by calling the Box Office at (514) 739-7944.
Running time: approximately 90 minutes, no intermission.
For more details, visit http://www.segalcentre.org/whats-on/upcoming-events/segal-theatre/my-name-is-asher-lev/