Review: My Name Is Asher Lev (Eternity Playhouse)

asherlev1Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), May 8 – 29, 2016
Playright: Aaron Posner (from the novel by Chaim Potok)
Director: Moira Blumenthal
Cast: Annie Byron, Tim McGarry, John O’Hare
Image by Blumenthal Photography

Theatre review
We meet Asher Lev from the time he discovers a talent for drawing, and follow his journey from prodigy to established artist. It is a short time getting to success, but the lessons he learns are profound, and writers Aaron Posner and Chaim Potok do an excellent job of sharing those wisdoms in the story. The theme is one that we all have to grapple with, some more often than others, but it is nonetheless universal; we must identify a true and authentic self, and live accordingly. Young Lev’s sense of authenticity is frequently at odds with the life his parents had envisioned for him, but it is that negotiation between forces that allows him to thrive as an artist and more significantly, develop into an independent autonomous being.

Direction by Moira Blumenthal is tender and melancholic, with detailed attention placed on family dynamics that are central to Lev’s experience of the world. The characters are believable and we relate to their psyches easily, but the production needs greater dynamism with its rhythm, and a more pronounced sense of humour to achieve variances in mood and tone between scenes. The role of the young artist is played by John O’Hare who although lacks the adolescent energy required, depicts acute emotional accuracy in order that we understand all the nuances of his conflicts and challenges. More compelling is Tim McGarry in a range of paternalistic parts who brings colour and surprising vibrancy to the show. Annie Byron is convincing as Lev’s mother, and chemistry between all three is beautifully forged for a show that makes a poignant statement about the complexities of family, history and individual fulfilment.

Whether we grow up to be copies of our parents, or turn out to only be partially similar to family members, there is no doubt that blood ties have a deep influence on the people that we become. As a child turns into an adult, they should be given choices and importantly, the strength to make them. We wish the best for our offspring, but they must become their own persons, and there comes a time when father no longer knows best. The world evolves, and it develops in directions that may not always be pleasing. When things become unbearable, we can call upon faith, and trust that something bigger than our own minds has great designs in mysterious ways, beyond our ability to currently comprehend.

Review: The Chosen (Moira Blumenthal Productions / Encounters@Shalom)

thechosenVenue: Shalom College (Kensington NSW), Aug 27 – Sep 14, 2014
Writer: Aaron Posner, Chaim Potok (from the novel by Chaim Potok)
Director: Moira Blumenthal
Cast: Anthony Darvall, Barry French, Gabriel McCarthy, Daniel Mitchell, Maeliosa Stafford
Image by Geoff Sirmai

Theatre review
The Chosen is the stage adaptation of a well-known 1967 novel of the same name. It features the friendship between two religious teenage boys in Brooklyn, New York. Reuven is a Modern Orthodox Jew and Danny is a Hasidic Jew, and the play showcases their differences wonderfully. Set against World War II and the subsequent revelation of the Holocaust in Europe, this coming of age story is a sentimental, and at times powerful, look at faith, family and friendship.

The script is eventful, with colourful characters and spirited dialogue. Moira Blumenthal’s direction creates distinct personalities that tell their tales with delightful clarity. There is a palpability that feels almost biographical, and along with it, an appealing gravity that keeps us engaged. A particular strength of Blumenthal’s is the seamlessness at which scene transitions are managed. Her use of space and actor positioning is full of flair in the negotiation of the script’s many short sections.

Performances are accomplished, although older members of the cast are quite noticeably stronger. The two young men are comparatively (and understandably) green, but both Gabriel McCarthy and Anthony Darvall show excellent commitment and focus. Daniel Mitchell as Reb Saunders, the spiritual leader of a Hasidic group is especially captivating. The role is a severe one, and Mitchell brings to it a pronounced sense of drama that makes for exhilarant viewing. The actor’s outstanding presence encompasses experience and confidence that lights up the stage.

Stage design is basic, but its elevation helps improve perspectives in a challenging venue. More ambitious is Alistair Wallace’s sound design, which helps manufacture a sense of time and place with creative use of music and effects.

There is a big emphasis on the father-son relationship in The Chosen, but both boys’ mothers are conspicuously missing. We do eventually discover that Reuven’s mother is deceased, but the juxtaposition of a heavily religious context with an all male narrative raises questions about the place of women in these families, and their respective cultural spheres. The story was created in the 1960s, but a production of the play today should take into consideration its skewed gender attitudes, and perhaps its relevance in view of this glaring omission. Nevertheless, this is a staging that speaks to our eternal search for the deeper meanings in life, and our never ending struggle to find political and spiritual peace. Chaim Potok’s text talks about the co-existence of two contradictory truths, an abstract concept that becomes convincing in this depiction of a pure and inspiring friendship.