I could begin and end this review right here by stating Stephen Sachs directing Jason Karasev, Anna Khaja and Joel Polis in Aaron Posner’s adaptation of Chaim Potok’s “My Name is Asher Lev” comes as close to perfection as you’re ever likely to see on any stage anywhere. That may sound like hyperbole to you, but it’s just fact.
What makes a show this good? Well, you start with a solid foundation; and in the beginning there was the word.
Chaim Potok (1929-2002) was the Bronx-born child of Jewish Polish immigrants. Like the characters of his novels The Chosen and My Name is Asher Lev, he struggled long and hard to find harmony between the faith of his fathers and the world of today.
Aaron Posner, who is an Associate Artist at the Folger Theatre and an award winning playwright, had the opportunity of working with Potok on the stage adaptation of his novel The Chosen, an experience which can only have serve him well in working on Asher Lev. He has wisely pared down the novel. Gone are the Lev’s kindly housekeeper Mrs. Rackover, gone Reb Yudel Krinsky the shop owner, honing down to the core conflict of the story.
And that conflict is one that connects such diverse works as the myth of Icarus, “Hamlet”, The Jazz Singer and the Broadway musical “Gypsy”. It asks, “What does one do when imprisoned by the world of their parents?”
Posner deftly avoids the Procrustean pit falls that are the bane of those who attempt staging novels. He neither stretches his material to where it’s too big for the theatre, nor hacks it down to where the literary potency remaining is but a stump. Posner travels the thin line between editing and amputation with a finesse that would turn a Wallenda green with envy.
Earlier on, through judiciously employed flashbacks, we are shown young Asher (Jason Karasev), the only son of devout Hasidic parents, display a remarkable talent for capturing and transfiguring the world around in line and color. His doting, Orthodox parents are stunned by the breadth of his artistic ability, then concerned as the fervor demanded by such artistry grows in intensity.
Eventually an apprenticeship is arranged for Asher by his Rebbe, the religious leader of the Hasidic community, and Asher goes to study with Jacob Kahn a non-observant Jew who is an artist of standing in New York.
“Become a baker!” he bellows before warning Asher, “Every great artist has freed himself from something.”
The story follows Asher from his childhood to his early twenties. We witness his training as an artist, the growth of his relationship with Kahn and the tragedies of his family, but always against the background of the rift his passion for art is creating between himself and his family and the Hasidic community.
In the end Asher comes to the agonizing, but inevitable choice: to leave the world of art or to leave a world that, while confining, is also defining of whom he is; the choice of freedom at the price of completeness.
Anna Khaja and Joel Polis in addition to portraying Asher’s parents fulfill the other roles the work requires, and do so magnificently. So magnificently that it takes one a few moments to realize their additional duties.
Fittingly, only Asher remains himself. Karasev as Asher never leaves the stage, nor is there an intermission to break the hold he has on the audience from his first line spoken. Seeing such talents as these on stage intoxicates the soul.
Now there is a question for us to ask. Why is “Asher Lev” the show it is? There have been other plays based on such solid source material, with well established directors and able casts that have failed utterly in approaching anywhere near the level “Asher Lev” has attained. So what did this production at the Fountain do so right?
I have always thought that genius was the slightest of matters; merely a matter of “that much”.
An example of what I mean by this:
A director has a concept. It is a good concept, he is satisfied with it. But then he thinks, “How could it be better?” and he re-considers it and it changes. Not significantly, only by “that much”.
An actor is working on his character. He feels he has it understood, but he doesn’t stop delving. His character is the head of a huge corporation, but one line in the script mentions his hated childhood on the family’s hardscrabble farm. So the actor chooses as a personal prop an old red bandanna as his character’s handkerchief. Not a large shift in his character development, only just “that much”.
In mounting a show there are thousands of decisions that must be made. It is when you give each of those decisions “that much” more thought, “that much” more effort, “that much” more time that you rise above the commonplace and draw near to perfection.
It is Khaja and Polis, in the momentary and passing act of entering a museum, invoking the reality for the audience of the mulling crowds and the explosion of art on the walls. It is the blending of distinctness and fluidity that Jeffrey R. McLaughlin has realized in his set design, which adapts yet never conflicts with the shifting of scenes.
It is Ric Zimmerman’s brush like application of lighting; and the poignancy of Lindsay Jones’ music, the truthfulness of Shon LeBlanc’s costumes, and the meticulousness of Tyler Seiple’s work with the cast on their dialects, and most of all it is the vision of director Sachs and producers Deborah Lawlor and Simon Levy to conceive of what was needed to bring this production to its fullest potential, and their ability to achieve that potential.
It was a show blessed with a plethora of “that much”.
I end this review where I began it; “My Name is Asher Lev” comes as close to perfection as you’re ever likely to see on any stage anywhere.
My Name is Asher Lev
The Fountain Theatre
5060 Fountain Ave.
Los Angeles CA 90029
(Fountain at Normandie)
Performances: Feb. 22-April 19
Thursdays at 8 p.m.: March 6, 13, 20, 27; April 3, 10, 17
Fridays at 8 p.m.: March 7, 14, 21, 28; April 4, 11, 18
Saturdays at 8 p.m.: March 8, 22, 29; April 12, 19 (dark March 15, April 5)
Sundays at 2 p.m.: March 9, 23, 30; April 6, 13 (dark March 16)
Reserved seating: $34
Seniors over 65 and students with ID (Thursdays and Fridays only): $25
Secure, on-site parking: $5