REVIEW: Twin Bill Theater’s “My Name is Asher Lev”
Plays that revolve on the struggles of particular artists are quite overdone in the Manila theatre scene. In 2013 there was Actor’s Actors Inc.’s staging of John Logan’s Red (the Tony-winning play about a painter Mark Rothko and his protégé student) and, just last year, 9 Works Theatrical did Tick, Tick…Boom! (Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical account of his early years as an aspiring writer). Then, why do another one? After all, there is ample supply of contemporary stories aching to be staged, not to mention the tendency of these materials to be self-indulgent and to come off as profoundly all-knowing about the arts. But director Steven Conde is not paying attention; in fact, in his latest work, he proved to us that there is one more artist whose story we need to hear, ah no, listen to – and the artist’s name is Asher Lev.
(READ: Twin Bill Theater Stages Off-Broadway Hit, ‘My Name is Asher Lev’)
Based on Chaim Potok’s 1967 novel titled “My Name is Asher Lev,” this adaptation by American playwright Aaron Posner depicts, in chronological order, the journey of a young and inquisitive Hasidic Jew in 1940s Brooklyn, Asher Lev, who, notwithstanding its contradiction to his religious beliefs and his father’s opposition, went on to pursue and hone his talent for drawing. The play, which can also be interpreted as a biography, really focuses on some crucial moments in Asher Lev’s life, which enriched his talent as a painter and made him the renowned, albeit controversial, painter that he was known for.
Conde cares for his audience, and takes into consideration the limited space and logistics he has on hand. For him to pull off such a remarkable staging, with such serious subject matter (plus a little history lesson on Jewish culture), it is smart of him to depend heavily on dynamic staging (accompanied really well by lighting director Joseph Matheu), a competent ensemble of actors, and the audience’s ability to create images by careful delivery of Posner’s text. For 90-minutes without intermission, the rows of blank canvasses hanging above the blackbox theater weren’t just ornaments or literal associations to the subject matter; it became actual canvasses of the protagonist’s imagination. This was particularly useful in two occasions: one, when Asher Lev sees Michelangelo’s Pieta for the first time, and second, when he conceived and described his, ground-breaking masterpiece, the Brooklyn Crucifixions. On a minor note, this reliance to the text really works well with the small and non-ideal setup of the venue (with seats even scattered in all corners of the theatre).
Lighting and technical director Joseph Matheu also displayed beautiful use of lights which brought so much energy to the scenes. Given such a small space, Matheu’s lighting cues were so on-point with Conde’s stage direction that the shifting from one scene to the next (even without actors leaving the stage) felt spontaneous and tasteful.
And then there is the company of three gifted actors who, collectively, gave strong and stirring performances. In the titular role is Nelsito Gomez as Asher Lev, who, in addition to varying stage cues, had to memorize a massive amount of dialogue just for one role. His character leaves the stage, only at the final scene and so, even that already is such challenge. On the other hand, Robie Zialcita plays all the supporting male roles, while Naths Everett plays all female roles. But among their many character turns, it is their portrayal as parents of Asher Lev that leave an indelible mark to the audience. Perhaps one criticism would be that of the actors’ inconsistencies with regards to nuance and manner of speaking. Because this play documents some age-specific events in Lev’s personal and professional career, the emotional journey of their characters would feel more truthful if we also see the actors “aging” as the story goes on. But still, this minor criticism does not derail their respective performances.
Conde is right; Asher Lev’s story pierces the heart, not just of budding artists, but every person who has a God-given talent. And that is basically each and every one of us.
My Name is Asher Lev is produced by Twin Bill Theater, and is presented by special arrangement with Dramatists Play Services, Inc. It runs on weekends until March 5 at the PARC Manila (494 Lt. Artiaga Street, San Juan). You can buy tickets HERE.