The Rep's Cavernous ASHER LEV
The Rep’s First Stiemke Show of the Year Seems To Contemplate A Theatre Of Absence
The immensity of the empty space is apparent the moment one walks into the Stiemke Theatre. Scenic Designer Kevin Depinet punctuates a largely undressed stage with a few old picture frames. The floorboards come together at strange angles. There’s a window. The lights fade. The show’s three actors appear onstage and the show begins. The Milwaukee Rep’s first of two shows at the Stiemke Studio Theatre this year is profoundly cavernous in more ways than one.
Adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok, My Name Is Asher Lev tells the story of a young artist with a great deal of talent, played here by Milwaukee Rep newcomer Jonathan Bock. Growing-up in a Hasidic Jewish family in the 1950’s, the young artist named Lev finds the subject matter of his art to be a cause of great concern for his parents. Classical nudes and images of Jesus on a cross are not things a young Jewish boy should be spending his time on. Lev’s parents, along with all of the rest of the male and female characters, are played by Cassandra Bissell and Daniel Cantor.
The drama is carried across as competently as could be expected from a trio of solidly professional Equity actors. The script delivers much of the story in relatively dry exposition with a fair number of scenes showing interaction between Lev, his parents and others. As interesting as the drama is in places, the script seems to be lacking in any real insight into the nature of family, religion or art. The drama and its artifact of conflict are presented in a very straightforward manner on an almost bare stage. The inner emotional tensions echo out through the empty space, making for a passionately cavernous trip to the theatre for 90 minutes without intermission.
My Name Is Asher Lev is clearly just as much about what isn’t being said as its is about the actual dialogue—just as much about what isn’t being done as it is about the physical motion manifesting itself on the stage. A big, shadowy cavern echoing bigger emotional friction from an unseen elsewhere can be a profoundly moving experience if you’ve got an audience in the right frame of mind for it, but there are limitations to staging a void for the benefit of an audience. Much of what an audience experiences in a production like this comes from the emotional substance they’re bringing with them into the theatre. For those not in a particularly reflective mood, a drama like this could come across as hollow echoes from one of the largest studio theatres in town.