Culture Buzz Theatre Review: ‘Asher Lev’ paints on a rich theatrical palette

‘Asher Lev’ paints on a rich theatrical palette

A theatre review by John Busbee/Culture Buzz

March 22, 2015

Pulling from the pages of pop culture a few decades ago and the tsunami-like success of Chaim Potok’s novel, “My Name Is Asher Lev,” StageWest Theatre Company presents the stage adaptation of this great story. StageWest shows that the core of this engaging story has a timeless appeal which still holds its audience while delivering its heartfelt story. Imbedded within the intimacy of the Kum & Go Theater space, on a stage glowing in warm tones, this story resonates with a special energy.

Potok’s mastery of storytelling first captured international acclaim through “The Chosen,” followed a few years later by this story. Steeped in tradition and faith, “My Name is Asher Lev” follows the struggle of Asher as he wrestles with the traditions of his Hasidic faith and the irresistible yearnings to be an artist. This stage version of Potok’s classic story resonates with its audiences, regardless of anyone’s religious heritage.

Aaron Posner’s stage adaptation firmly grasps the core issues at play, rewarding its audiences with a cerebral, yet visceral, cultural journey all will recognize. Bringing this story into the realm of live theater captures an essence not fully manifest in the book, giving those who experience this journey plenty of interpretive fodder to digest.

A trio of StageWest newcomers – Andrew Rubenbauer in the title role, Greg Blumhagen playing the men roles, and Laura Sparks playing the women roles – brings a wealth of performing experience to this production. Under Michael Tallman’s nurturing and insightful direction, this ensemble elevates this fluid, shifting story from script to stage with a special energy. Tallman further enhances his show through a unified team headed by another talented trio, scenic designer, April Zingler, lighting designer, Drew David Kleckner Vander Werff, and sound/video designer, Christopher J. Williams. These three deserve a special tip of the hat for creating a cohesive look and feel for Tallman’s vision. Further enhanced by costuming (Jill Lindeman) and makeup/hair/wig (Cindy Hummel). This blending of great ingredients provides the audience a masterful feast for the discerning cultural consumer.

Greg Blumhagen brings a fine sense of Yiddish legacy to his many men’s roles. Sometimes wandering close to caricature, he thankfully doesn’t cross that line. His best role is as Jacob Kahn, the demanding mentor who understands the journey young Asher is travelling. As Kahn, Blumhagen opens the gateway into the world of art that has been beckoning Asher since his childhood. Playing the women’s roles, Laura Sparks does especially enticing work as Rivkeh Lev, Asher’s mother. Sparks captures the loving, nurturing role, continually being the family moderator between Asher and his father, Aryeh, while battling her own inner struggles. When Rivkeh’s brother is killed, Sparks brings a chilling haunted demeanor to her character, very ably conveyed.

As Asher Lev, Andrew Rubenbauer offers a steadfast vulnerability to his role, embracing the conflict tearing at his heart and soul. His many protestations contradict the passionate calling he has as he copes with faith, heritage, art and family. The greater sense of Asher’s destiny is brought to full, vibrant force through Rubenbauer’s performance.

Zingler’s carefully crafted scenic areas, done in wood tones with spare furnishings, guide the action through Tallman’s staging and Kleckner Vander Werff’s lighting. Add Williams’ meticulously inserted musical and sound elements, enhancing scenes and trending action, and a complete and gratifying cultural journey is captured. Posner’s choice to run his play without intermission gives those joining this journey the chance to fully appreciate the story’s overall arc. StageWest is to be applauded for bringing such a fresh new work to Greater Des Moines, as “My Name Is Asher Lev” was a recent critically acclaimed winner in New York City.