My Name Is Asher Lev a vibrant exploration of art and tradition

The portrait of the conflicted artist as a young man isn’t a new story. So it's remarkable that the Royal MTC's My Name Is Asher Lev feels as fresh and energetic as it does — especially given that it’s based on a novel published nearly 45 years ago, and set 60 years in the past.

Stage adaptation of Chaim Potok’s acclaimed novel opens Royal MTC Warehouse season

My Name Is Asher Lev, opening the Royal MTC Warehouse season, asks pointed questions about the conflict between tradition, faith and art. (Leslie Schachter)

The portrait of the artist as a young man isn't a new story. Nor is the idea of an artist rebelling against parents who don't want him to pursue his calling. It's remarkable, then, that My Name Is Asher Lev feels as fresh and energetic as it does — especially given that it's based on a novel published nearly 45 years ago, and set 60 years in the past.

Aaron Posner's 2009 play, which opens the Royal MTC Warehouse season in a co-production with Montreal's Segal Centre, is based on Chaim Potok's acclaimed 1972 novel of the same name. It tells the story of Asher Lev — a boy growing up in a Hasidic Jewish family in 1950s Brooklyn who has a prodigious gift as an artist.

But his parents — particularly his devoutly religious father — discourage his pursuit of painting and drawing, considering it frivolous at best, and blasphemous at worst, especially when Asher begins painting depictions of the crucifixion.

Taking on multiple roles, Ellen David and Alex Poch-Goldin (from left) show remarkable range. As Asher Lev, David Reale (right) conveys the artist's passion and conflict impressively. (Andree Lanthier)
As Asher grows older, and more talented as a painter, the pull between his religion and family on one side and his drive as an artist on the other becomes more intense. And all of this raises pointed questions about faith, art, tradition — and who Asher Lev really is.

It's the kind of inner struggle that can play out marvelously in a novel, but is tricky to translate to the stage. Posner's compact adaptation (at 90 minutes) is largely successful, though. It relies heavily on narration from Asher (played here by David Reale), sometimes falling back on it as a crutch to cram in exposition, but more often using it to delve deeply into Asher's inner world. 

It's hard not to draw a comparison to the other show which opened in Winnipeg this week — The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble — where I felt the monologue often seemed an interruption to the story. Here, largely, it enhances it, because it digs so deeply and pointedly into the questions at the core of Asher as a character, and of the play.

Again, the themes of the nature of art and repression of artistic pursuit have been dealt with elsewhere and often. But they take on a different dimension here with questions of faith added into the mix (why isn't there, Asher is asked, a tradition of great Hasidic Jewish artists?), and by taking us into a world rarely explored.

While stories of conflicted artists aren't new, My Name Is Asher Lev is a compelling piece of art about art. (Andree Lanthier)

Much of this rests on the shoulders of the actor in the lead role, and Reale's gripping performance as Asher is polished, kinetic and vivacious. Rarely standing fully still, he conveys Asher's passion and conflict impressively.

He's backed by a supporting cast of just two, taking on multiple roles. Ellen David plays "The Women" — everyone from Asher's sympathetic, but tormented, mother to a high-powered art dealer to a nude model. Alex Poch-Goldin plays "The Men," including Asher's father, and most memorably, his lovably crusty painting mentor Jacob.

Both show a remarkable range, slipping smoothly from one character into another and imbuing each with a credible depth. And director Steven Schipper's production moves energetically, but without being rushed.

It's a compelling piece of art about art and tradition. And it's well worth meeting Asher Lev.

My Name Is Asher Lev runs at the Royal MTC Warehouse until Oct. 29.


Joff Schmidt

CBC theatre reviewer

Joff Schmidt is a copy editor for CBC Manitoba. Since 2005, he's also been CBC Manitoba's theatre critic on radio and online. He majored in theatre at the U of M, and performed in many university and Fringe festival productions along the way (ranging from terrible to pretty good, according to the reviews). Find him on Twitter @JoffSchmidt.