By MARK BLANKENSHIP
They rise from the script like elegant mountains---the monologues that drive My Name is Asher Lev. An actor has to climb them carefully, helping us grasp every facet of their stories, and a director has to master them, too, lest they overpower the rest of the production.
It makes sense for monologues to anchor the show. Adapted by Aaron Posner, My Name is Asher Lev is based on Chaim Potok's novel about a Hasidic artist who scandalizes his community when he paints his masterpieces. In the book, Asher speaks to us directly, describing what it costs to choose an individual calling over a religious community. As he navigates his family, his faith, and his talent, his private thoughts make his journey feel urgent and real.
Without the monologues, then, the play might feel empty. If Asher didn't speak to us directly, then we might lose the heart of his journey.
But all those speeches are tricky for the creative team. "The words are beautiful, but they're still just words to an audience," says Gordon Edelstein, who helms the current production at the Westside Theatre and directed the play this spring at New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre, where he's the artistic director.
"Half of the play is narration, and that is just not that interesting visually," he continues. "I tried to layer in visual corollary or counterpoint. I was aware, since this is a play about the creation of art, that I'd better damn well try to make it as artful and graceful as possible."
To that end, cast members often take their gestures an inch beyond naturalism. Before he travels on a mission for his Rebbe, Asher's father touches the mezuzah on his doorframe. He leaves his hand raised for an extra beat while a chime plays off stage, evoking the depth of his faith. There are also moments when Asher's mother stands by the living room window, her body reflecting her suffering as the men in her family wander away. Lighting designer James F. Ingalls carves a space for her in the room, accentuating the odd elegance of her distress.
Now that he's on his second production, Edelstein has layered more of these visual flourishes into the show. In one scene, we see Asher's parents performing a Shabbos ritual, and this time, Asher's father sings a traditional song, bringing more life to the event.
But what about the man who delivers Asher's speeches? As the visual world develops around him, how does Ari Brand inject his monologues with life?
"I'm used to putting up a fourth wall and pretending I'm in a room alone with the people on stage, but when it's me and the audience, and the wall is completely broken down, it raises a new challenge," says Brand, who also played Asher at Long Wharf. "We worked for a long time to figure out the right tone to take with the audience. It has to do with who I'm speaking to and why I'm trying to get them to understand what I'm saying."
Brand has imagined an unusual context for talking to the crowd. "I'm treating them as if they're the only ones who are ever going to see it, so they'd better understand it this night," he says. "Sometimes, I think that I'm Asher Lev and I'm being televised. It's my one-night special, and it's going to be immortalized. It's my one shot to make everyone understand who I am, so I'd better get it right. That feels like a strong choice."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus