A simple statement of identity by the main character of “My Name Is Asher Lev” proves to be a telling nod by the playwright about the gist of this story. At the outset, the play appears to be a familiar tale of a father not approving of a son’s path, with the mother caught in between. And while that’s certainly true in “My Name Is Asher Lev,” the philosophical demons that torment a young man take the audience to a much deeper — and at times darker — place.
A production of the Cherry Creek Theatre now showing at the black-box theater at Denver’s Mizel Center, “Asher Lev” is a standout in a fall season full of stellar shows. The cast is stellar, with UNC senior Josue Ivan Prieto inhabiting the title role while Christy Kruzick and Josh Levy play Asher’s parents.
In turning Chaim Potok’s 1972 bildungsroman by the same name into a play, playwright Aaron Posner went with just three actors to portray all the characters. Asher Lev is played by one actor speaking in retrospect and portraying himself at different ages from 7 and up. All of the other characters are played by one man and one woman — mostly as Asher’s parents but also as an uncle, a rabbi, and an artist on the part of Levy, and an art dealer and “nude” model for Kruzick.
While it has a laugh here and there, this is a fairly serious play, and it turns out that having “The Men” and “The Women” played by two actors provides a bit of levity as Asher bulldozes his way through his early years. What role will the gifted Levy — last seen locally as Charlie in The Edge Theatre’s topnotch “Death of a Salesman” — assume next? What hat will he wear? Levy slides in and out of the characters with inspired ease, effecting slight changes in voice and gesture that convince us without a doubt he’s another character. Kruzick, who as the mother Rivkeh is a model of suffering, seems happy to emerge for a short scene as a model and, later, in a much juicier role as fashionably gruff gallery owner Anna Schaeffer.
Mostly, of course, the play is about our title character, a young man with enormous talent and no shortage of turmoil as he grows into his identity.
Asher, you see, is an inspired artist — a prodigy, it turns out, who can draw striking likenesses of his family and surroundings at a very early age. Asher is also, it must be said, an enormous pain in the ass who drives both his parents crazy with his dogged determination to follow his muse wherever it leads.
That’s the artist’s way, after all. Or, as his painting mentor Jacob Kahn tells him repeatedly, the only way to avoid becoming a “whore” who does what others want him to do and strays from the path of the genuine artist. As Asher starts converting that raw talent into more polished works that sell for big money, it sets up even more conflict as he attempts to reconcile “famous artist” with his other identity: Hasidic Jew.
Art vs. family
For Aryeh Lev, his son’s artistic pursuits and apparent talent are nice, but like most old-school fathers, he doesn’t see the real value in it. And why the hell is he copying old master crucifixation paintings and, later, nude women for god’s sake? In no world he understands does that activity gibe with practicing Jew. In one memorable scene, Aryeh sits down with Asher and Rivkeh with the intention of really trying to comprehend how Asher can be OK with the nudes. As Asher tries to parse the difference between “naked women” and “nude,” Aryeh just can’t take it anymore and storms out. Once again, Asher is left with his mother who, while more sympathetic, doesn’t have the words to begin sorting out the family’s discord.
She has, after all, never really gotten over the death of her brother, Yitzchok. After the car accident that took his life, she throws herself into the same work Yitzchok and Aryeh have been pursuing: spreading the word of Hasidism worldwide. Stalin is now dead, leaving an opening for Jews in Russia, and as Asher grows up, he sees less and less of his parents. The rabbi (or “rebbe,” as he’s known in the Hasidic sect) has heard of the rift between Asher and his father and arranges a meeting with Jacob Kahn, an accomplished painter. A non-practicing Jew in his 70s, Kahn immediately sees Asher’s promise and pledges five years to turn him into the painter he believes he can be.
As Asher, Prieto’s young, open face readily communicates the wide range of emotions about his evolution as a man and an artist. Prieto seems born to this role, able to evoke everything from joy to torment while self-narrating and portraying the character at different ages. It’s quite a feat of acting, and director Bernie Cardell was lucky to find him. Along with Levy and Kruzick, it’s a dream cast that’s made even more enjoyable by the intimate space of the Mizel’s Pluss Theatre.
For any artist who’s had to work to convince those around him the pursuit is worth the time, or for any son or daughter who’s struggled to reconcile their wants with those of their parents, “My Name Is Asher Lev” is a relatable story. It’s particularly poignant for Jews, of course, since God’s opinion is also part of the equation. But one need not be a Jew to appreciate the dilemma all three characters face, and this show does a beautiful job of exploring the various rites of passage we all face in one way or another.