Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cleveland Play House: My Name is Asher Lev [With Happy Hour]

The Cleveland Play House hosts periodic happy hours which I try not to miss because they're a great low-key way to bump into new artsularly inclined people as well as check in with old friends and acquaintances. While the typically held at greater Cleveland bars, tonight's was in the Play House's back yard at MoCA Cleveland.

Arriving at the Happy Hour I knew I wanted to do something after but I wasn't sure what -- CPH had two plays up (My Name is Asher Lev and Present Laughter) and CIM had a orchestra concert, which sounded interesting but some of the details were a bit strange, so it got ruled out pretty early. Present Laughter, was a contender (and something I want to see anyway) but was sold out this evening. Last play standing: Asher Lev.

(Deep exhale). I was really on the fence about Asher, if for no other reason than I accidentally read the review of the show by a critic who is one of few people I can't stand*. He loved it. Our paths and tastes rarely cross.

All of this is really stalling while I try to figure out how I feel about the play. Intimately set on thrust stage, from beginning to end everything was convincingly three dimensional; Asher's early childhood at three stops, his teenage years, and adulthood are all visited (though there were explicit breaks between the first several vignettes, I the break between "13" and "adult").

Growing up in a Hasidic Jewish family, Asher discovers artistic ability at an early age; the art isn't encouraged by his parents (who view the art as something between a waste of time and sacrilegious), he pursues art in spite of their objections, staging conflict between Asher and his parents, but the Rebbe (for whom his father works) forges a connection to an artist behind his parents back [I'm making an assumption here]. The artist challenges and encourages Asher's development. Asher grows, culminating in an exhibition that is at least initially critically acclaimed but further alienates his parents.

While I have no qualms with the way the story was told, I just couldn't connect or relate to much of the story...I can't say if it's because I've never been particularly religious, or just never had conflicts of that magnitude with my parents ("Just remember", my mother said growing up and says to this day, "do whatever you want, but I will not bail you out of jail.") but it didn't resonate with me.

The character of Jacob Kahn, like all of the secondary male characters played by Tom Alan Robbins, was the person who most interested me individually and with his relationship to Asher Lev (Noel Joseph Allain) with some particularly interesting comments on art ("An artist either reflects his life or comments upon it..."), making decisions based on conviction as opposed to because it's the hip/trendy/easy path.

Though I am a straight, red-blooded American male, I am also a bit prudish and generally uncomfortable with nudity. This production includes a scene with female nudity that felt nearly eternal as I tried to avert my eyes without directly staring down the audience member next to me (based on my front row house left seat, she was literally standing in front of me, though for the majority of the audience I believe her back would be to them). Late in the play, Asher -- at lest I think it was Asher -- makes a comment on the difference between a painting of a naked woman and a nude: A naked woman is a woman who's not wearing any clothes, while a nude is a vision of an unclothed woman filtered through the eyes of an artist. I have to say I've never considered that difference.

In keeping all of the canvases, sketch books, and scraps of paper used to showcase Asher's art blank, the audience is interestingly forced to project their own illusions of what "great art" is into that space. The amazing sounds of a mostly-solo cello weave together the scenes and set the emotional tone in a way that only a stringed instrument can. I'm a little disappointed that that musician and/or composer do not seem to be credited in the program.

So... I'm still not sure how I felt about it. Maybe after I sleep on it I'll have stronger feelings.

*- Though I've never met in person.

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