The war within3/25/2015
For a minute halfway into “My Name is Asher Lev,” nothing matters so much as a shadow. The dark profile of the title character, a budding artist, falls across a blank canvas, while his mentor prods him to do better — to leave his mark.
What’s more, the shadow evokes Asher’s struggle with his culture, the Hasidic Jews. Hasids dress in severe black and white. All in all, the effect reveals the care director Michael Tallman has taken. It required choreography among the cast, the set designer April Zingler (her first time handling the job) and Drew Vander Werff on the lights. But together, at that moment and throughout, “Asher Lev” kept things swift, poignant and winning.
Yet its materials seemed stark. The music tends to be subdued — no more than phrase on violin — and bare wooden columns frame the set. The sticks of furniture look rustic, and it comes as a surprise to learn the time is late 20th Century and the setting New York. A single costume cue, like the rabbi’s spectacular fur hat, will designate a change in character.
Such changes take place often. Aaron Posner’s script, adapted from a 1972 novel by the writer-rabbi Chaim Potok, requires just three players. One is Asher Lev, who grows from a dutiful Hasidic boy to a celebrated Manhattan painter. Around him are two opposing camps. His parents and the rabbi tussle with his artist mentor and a fashionable gallery owner, yanking Asher back to roots, shoving him out toward his calling. Others pop up as well, and all except Asher must be handled by two actors — a man and a woman.
At StageWest, they rise to the challenge. Laura Sparks has the richer emotional material. As Asher’s mother, her screams of grief can raise your hackles. Yet, as the gallery owner, Sparks brings off a comic turn, her accent switching smart-aleck Noo Yawk. And she’s not the only one speaking with forked tongue. Greg Blumhagen growls when he’s the father, then gets yippy as the mentor. Blumhagen also varies his body English — the father bullish, thrusting his head forward, the artist bouncy, loose in the hips.
But the play is finally Asher’s. In fact, the climax relies too much on his soliloquies. Toward the end, the script could use more give and take. Nonetheless, Andrew Rubenbauer generated unflagging intensity. A simple tic of his eyebrows could work up the drama needed in some of his long spells alone onstage, whether he spoke of a Talmudic devil or a Michelangelo sculpture. The way he clutched his midsection could make it seem as if the warring forces within might tear him apart. The role is Rubenbauer’s Des Moines debut, and only Jamaal Gabriel Allan — Stanley Kowalski in last month’s “Streetcar Named Desire” — brought off one to match it. CV
Overheard in the Lobby: At the Wanda Sykes show, a bat got into Hoyt Sherman, circling the stage. Sykes handled it like a champ, getting off zingers. … “Independence,” this year’sTallgrass Theater Dream Project, begins March 27
John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.