Asher Lev at the Segal
Asher Lev is his name and painting is his game
By Byron Toben
Before delving into this wonderful production of My Name Is Asher Lev at the Segal Centre about an orthodox Jewish youth obsessed with painting, I cannot help but marvelling at an incident at the popular free Sunday morning series called Sundays at the Segal, where experts discuss the opening of the current production.
At the one for Asher Lev, scheduled for 11 am, the whole district was hit by a power outage. Yet within 10 minutes, artistic director Lisa Rubin and all-hands-aboard ticketeers, ushers, stage hands, managed to find over one hundred chairs secreted in passageways and corridors, and carry on with the natural light in the lobby area. Everyone was seated, the distinguished panel (including two rabbis and CJAD host Sarah Deshaies) did not have to be reassembled and words of wisdom were disbursed.
To me, the last man standing, the instant and efficient mobilization was reminiscent of the 1940 Miracle of Dunkirk where a flotilla of hundreds of private boats rallied to ferry 330 thousand soldiers of The British Expeditionary Forces trapped by Nazi Panzer forces on the beach, to safety. As the Christian hymn declaims, “The Lord works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform”.
Based on a novel by the prolific writer, ordained Conservative rabbi, and closeted painter wannabe Chaim Potok, this show hits all the marks in its sustained (no intermission) 90 minutes.
The other Miracle at the Segal was the play itself. Based on a novel by the prolific writer, ordained Conservative rabbi, and closeted painter wannabe Chaim Potok, this show hits all the marks in its sustained (no intermission) 90 minutes.
Young Asher, born into a very orthodox (but not Hassidic) family, remains observant despite his burning desire to become the first famous Jewish painter. Among his idols are my own holy trinity of Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Goya.
David Reale is perfect in this role, enacting Asher at ages ranging from early childhood to maturity. Alex Poch-Goldin plays his father, plus all the other men in the play – his uncle, the local rabbi, and a secular successful older painter.
Ellen David, as usual, displays her versatility in portraying his mother plus all the other women, such as a society art patron, and a nude model. Her scream upon hearing of a death in the family, to me, was the mother of all screams.
I must say I sided with the father when he failed to see any difference between the terms naked and nude, where as Asher felt that naked was just a woman without clothes on, but nude revealed the beauty of the human form as distilled thru an artist’s eyes.
Martin Ferland’s stark set with many blank canvases, matched director Stephen Shipper’s vision well as audience imaginations are often unmatched by actual renderings on the canvases.
Playwright Aaron Posner did a fine Job in adapting Potok’s book to the stage, as he also had done with Potok’s The Chosen. Of course, Potok had he himself written some plays, so his prose has a playwright’s sensibility. (By the way, a film version of The Chosen won the overall film prize at the 1981 Montreal World Film Festival.)
A critical point in this play comes with Asher’s shocking painting of the Crucifixion but with Mama on the cross. Different times, different places change what is considered shocking. Gauguin’s Yellow Christ was probably closer to the truth than blue-eyed Nordic types.
And in today’s marketing, shock sells. Remember Chris Ofill’s The Holy Virgin Mary which used elephant dung on the canvas, which enraged then Mayor Giuliani at the 1996 Brooklyn exhibition? Just sold for $4.3 million last June. I won’t even mention Damien Hirst’s 14-foot tiger shark in a tank of Formaldehyde… Oops. I just did… it sold for over $10 million.
But I digress.
With regard to Asher’s mentioning there were no great Jewish painters at that time with the possible exception of the then emerging Marc Chagall. It should be noted that European Enlightenment beginning around 1685, came late to Jewish ghettos until broken down by Napoleon and leading to a Jewish Enlightenment or Haskala around 1885. So you now have the likes of Amadeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, Larry Rivers and my own Depression era favourites, Ben Shahn, Jack Levine and Diego Rivera.
This don’t miss show is a co-production with the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, to which it moves when it finishes here.
My Name Is Asher Lev continues at the Segal Centre until October 2.
Tickets: 514 739-7944 or segalcentre.org
Feature image: Ellen David, Alex Poch-Goldin, David Reale – Image: Andrée Lanthier
Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club