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My Name is Asher Lev
by Aaron Posner
Adapted From the Novel by Chaim Potok
Directed by Aaron Sparks
New Jewish Theatre
January 23, 2020

Spencer Sickmann
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre’s latest production is a compelling showcase for excellent local actors. It’s also a fascinating look at one person’s struggle to find his place in two different worlds that seem at odds with one another. My Name is Asher Lev is a well-structured, almost poetic look at an artist’s journey of self-discovery, and his relationship with his art, his faith, his family, and the world around him.

Based on Chaim Potok’s celebrated novel, this play’s subject matter is fairly straightforward. It’s titled after its main character, Asher Lev (Spencer Sickmann), a controversial painter who has been making waves in the art world. Asher narrates the story, in fact, which focuses on his growing up in a Hasidic Jewish family in Brooklyn. As he discovers his talent and his constant need to draw the world as he sees it, Asher often finds himself at odds with his parents and with the rest of his community. The structure of the play has all the supporting male characters played by one actor (Chuck Winning), and the women played by another (Amy Loui). The most important figures in Asher’s life are his parents–his strict, zealous father and his devoted, academically inclined mother. As Asher’s skills as an artist become apparent, as well as his determination to persist in expressing his talent, the Rebbe (the community and religious leader) arranges for Asher to study with Jacob, a non-Hasidic Jewish artist who introduces Asher to new styles and forms of art, including nudes, which further disturbs Asher’s parents. He also develops a fascination with images of crucifixions, challenging his parents’ strict belief system while maintaining his own faith, despite his gradual exposure to secular influences in the art world. Asher is torn between two worlds, becoming something of an outsider in both, as he embarks on an artistic career that challenges convention in both of these spheres. It’s a fascinating play, exploring several compelling concepts as personified by Asher, a man who is compelled to exercise his talent but also to remain true to his faith, or least the best he can.

The story here is one of relationships and complex characters, embodied with great charm and expertise by the excellent Sickmann as Asher, as well as by the equally strong–and commendably versatile–Winning and Loui. Sickmann takes the audience along on his artistic journey in a remarkably compelling way, and the strong ensemble chemistry between Sickmann, Winning, and Loui also adds to the appeal of the production. It’s a tour-de-force for Sickmann, especially. This piece is named for Asher Lev and Sickmann makes the character intriguing and unforgettable.

The set and lighting by Rob Lippert work especially well here, with a unit set backed by Kareem Deanes’s projections and a distinctive atmosphere that adds to the storytelling. There are also excellent costumes by Michele Friedman Siler and sound by Deanes. The staging is well-paced and flows especially well, as Asher takes the audience with him on his personal journey.

My Name is Asher Lev is at once compelling, dramatic, touching, and thought-provoking. It’s about one man and his relationships with the people and world around him, but there are some universal themes here with which many in the audience can relate. The process of a person’s growing up and finding their own identity separate from their parents’ expectations, as well as the struggle to find meaning in life and to best use one’s gifts and talents, are all relatable issues. Here on stage at the New Jewish Theatre, this story is a profound, fascinating, and especially well-portrayed tale. Asher Lev is a remarkable character, well worth meeting.

Spencer Sickmann, Chuck Winning
Photo by Jon Gitchoff
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting My Name is Asher Lev at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 9, 2020

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District Merchants
by Aaron Posner
Directed by Jacqueline Thompson
New Jewish Theatre
January 24, 2019

J. Samuel Davis
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

For their latest production, New Jewish Theatre is staging another literary inspired comedy by Aaron Posner. Like last year’s Chekhov-based Life Sucks, District Merchants takes a new look at its inspiration–this time Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice–and re-imagines the characters and situations in a new setting. It’s a new look at an much-studied and problematic classic that honors its source material while simultaneously challenging and reinventing it.

The story is now set in Washington, DC and Massachusetts in the 1870s. The Civil War is over, slavery is outlawed, but racial tensions and injustices remain. The central figures, who address the audience to introduce themselves at the beginning of the show, are Jewish moneylender Shylock (Gary Wayne Barker), and Antoine (J. Samuel Davis), a black businessman who was born free, and who borrows money from Shylock to help his young friend, Benjamin Bassanio (Rob White) woo a wealthy young woman named Portia (Courtney Bailey Parker). That all sounds like The Merchant of Venice, essentially, but there are notable twists. There are some important things Benjamin hasn’t told Antoine about Portia, and about the manner in which he’s going about pursuing her. Shylock, for his part, is given a lot more backstory, and is a more sympathetic character, although he’s overprotective of his daughter Jessica (Alicen Moser), leading to her wanting to leave his house for good. She’s also attracted to Finn (Paul Edwards), a young Irish immigrant who has ulterior motives for pursuing Jessica, at least at first. Portia, in the meantime, wants to go to Harvard law school and become a lawyer, but she’s not allowed because she’s a woman. That doesn’t stop her, though. Meanwhile, Portia’s longtime maid and confidante Nessa (Rae Davis) is aware of more than she lets on, and challenges Portia on her own biases. There’s also Lancelot (Karl Hawkins), Shylock’s household servant who sympathizes to degrees with both Shylock and Jessica and finds himself in the middle of all the disputes. That’s the setup, really, but there’s a whole lot that goes on here that I won’t spoil. It follows the basic framework of The Merchant of Venice in a lot of ways, but also deviates from that plot in several important ways. Several key speeches from Shakespeare are included, as well, especially notable speeches for Shylock and Portia.

This is a fascinating twist on the source material, which has been subject for controversy and criticism over the years, especially in its treatment of Shylock and Jewish people in general. Here, the twist is that nobody is in the dominant social group in 1870s society. The main characters are Jewish or black, and there’s also the Irish Finn, and Portia who is wealthy and white, but as a woman isn’t allowed to pursue the career she desires, and is expected to make an advantageous marriage. The tensions represented here are personal as well as societal, and larger issues of systemic injustice are also emphasized, with some fourth-wall breaking and direct challenges to the 2019 audience. The tone is still, for the most part, comic, but there’s some poignant drama here, as well, particularly in the expanded backstory of Shylock, which gives his reasons for sheltering his daughter and demanding his “pound of flesh” from Antoine. The dynamics of all the relationships are turned around, but ultimately it’s a comedy and there is still hope.

The staging by director Jacqueline Thompson is fast-paced and dynamic, and the cast assembled here is truly excellent. Davis and Barker are the central figures, and both are terrific. Barker’s Shylock is guarded, insecure, but also proud at the same time, and Davis displays considerable presence as the determined Antoine. Both men energize the stage when they are on it, and their scenes together are especially memorable. There are also impressive performances from White and Parker, who display strong chemistry as Benjamin and Portia; and Moser and Edwards, with equally strong chemistry as Jessica and Finn. Davis, as the witty, occasionally snarky Nessa, and Hawkins as Lancelot also display good chemistry and excellent comic timing. It’s a cohesive ensemble all around, bringing a lot of humor, as well as depth to their portrayals.

Technically, this production is a wonder, with a stunning multilevel set by David Blake and meticulously detailed period costumes by Felia Davenport. Sean Savoie’s lighting also contributes effectively to the mood and tone of the production, as do Zoe Sullivan’s sound and projection, helping to transport the audience back to a different, fully realized time and place.

District Merchants is a funny play, but also poignant and challenging. It takes a well-known Shakespearean tale and turns it around, bringing new depth to the relationships and situations. It also boasts a first-rate cast of local performers. It’s another impressive, intriguing comedy by Aaron Posner, given a remarkable production at New Jewish Theatre.

Gary Wayne Barker
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

New Jewish Theatre is presenting District Merchants at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until February 10, 2019.

 

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Life Sucks
by Aaron Posner, adapted from Anton Chekhov
Directed by Edward Coffield
New Jewish Theatre
May 23, 2018

Jan Meyer, Christopher Harris, Jeff Cummings
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

Life Sucks is the title of New Jewish Theatre’s latest production. It’s also the most uttered line in the play. It’s a phrase that inspires much pondering, arguing, and philosophizing among the characters in playwright Aaron Posner’s re-imagined, modernized version of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. As staged at NJT, it also provides an excellent showcase for some excellent local performers.

The story here is essentially a fourth-wall breaking, sort of but not always linear version of the Uncle Vanya story, but with more of an emphasis on broad comedy with focus on the characters’ internal conflicts more than on the actual plot. In fact, at least one key plot point of Chekhov’s Vanya is essentially treated as a throwaway element in this play. Here, the characters talk to the audience and try to work out their various existential crises. The characters are also modified to varying degrees from Chekhov, with some having different names. It’s essentially a series of vignettes and confrontations, with occasional moments of the whole cast assembling to speak to the audience or to a particular character. Sonia (Katy Keating) outlines the relationships. Vanya (Christopher Harris) is her uncle, and Babs (Jan Meyer) is sort of her aunt, and the three live together in what was Sonia’s mother’s house. Sonia’s father, The Professor (Greg Johnston) is an aging, self-important academic who rarely visits and is insecure in his relationship to his third wife, Ella (Julie Layton). Ella, for her part, is boggled by the fact that almost everyone in the play seems to be in love with her, especially Vanya and his old friend Dr. Aster (Jeff Cummings), with whom Sonia has long been enamored. There’s also Pickles (Michelle Hand), another sort-of aunt who still grieves a long-ended relationship and also is attracted to Ella. The framework plot of Uncle Vanya is here, but its the characters and their views of life, relationships, and their own personal crises that take precedence here, and although there are some poignant moments, it’s essentially a comedy.

The script is engaging, with emphasis on character relationships, fantastical elements, witty dialogue, and a lot of contempory pop culture references.  It’s an intriguing take on the source material, and since character is key here, the casting is also important. All six players here are strong, embodying the archtypes of their characters well. Keating is an especially relatable Sonia, and her relationship with Harris’s emotionally effusive Vanya is especially poignant. The structure of the script is such that all the characters are given moments to shine, from Layton’s excellent reflection on what it’s like to be pursued and idealized by so many people, to Johnston’s reflections on aging, to Hand’s yearning for people to see past her quirks, and more. Cummings, as the amiable but somewhat aimless Aster, and Mayer as the more world-wise Babs are also excellent. The sense of cohesive ensemble chemistry, in fact, is a real highlight of this production.

The production values here are nothing short of stunning. Peter and Margery Spack’s set is colorful, detailed, and whimsical, representing Sonia’s house and backyard in a literal way but also with some more fantastical touches. The costumes, by Michele Friedman Siler, suit the characters well. There’s also excellant evocative, atmospheric lighting by Maureen Berry. Overall, the play seems to take place at once in the “real world” of the characters but also at the same time in their heads and in an “out of time” space, and all the technical elements here help to set and maintain that effect, augmenting the strong performances of the cast.

The questions raised in Life Sucks are ones with which many audience members will relate–questions of identity, relationship, and purpose in life. It’s a clever, sometimes a little pretentious but still witty and entertaining piece with some truly wonderful performances. It’s a memorable way to close out New Jewish Theatre’s 21st season.

Katy Keating, Jeff Cummings, Jan Meyer, Christopher Harris, Greg Johnston, Julie Layton, Michelle Hand
Photo by Eric Woolsey
New Jewish Theatre

The New Jewish Theatre is presenting Life Sucks at the Marvin & Harlene Wool Studio Theatre at the JCC’s Staenberg Family Complex until June 10, 2018.

 

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