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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

My Name Is Asher Lev and Hedda Gabler
Arden Theatre Company

My Name is Asher Lev
Adam Heller and Karl Miller
A drama about a young man who struggles with his heritage as he tries to make his own mark on the world: Predictable, you might say? Well, My Name Is Asher Lev is anything but predictable, and anything but ordinary. Writer/director Aaron Posner's adaptation of Chaim Potok's 1972 novel combines an intriguing story with remarkable stagecraft to create a truly beautiful theatrical experience. It's a tale about the power of art that manages to become a moving work of art in its own right.

Asher Lev (played by Karl Miller in a focused, driven performance) is obsessed from a young age with drawing. That brings him into conflict with the members of his Brooklyn Hasidic community—and especially with his father, an aide to the Rebbe (leader) of their sect. When Asher says that he can't help but draw, his father sneers "An animal can't help it," and blames Asher's mother for failing to control their son. Mother, meanwhile, is haunted by her brother's death and enrolls in college to broaden her opportunities, but still feels trapped between her husband and son, unable to make peace. Eventually the Rebbe recognizes Asher's talent and sends the boy to study with Jacob Kahn, an artist who teaches more than just technique. "Art is not for people who want to make the world holy," says Jacob in one of the many pronouncements that dare Asher to change the way he sees the world. Asher achieves fame, but things don't improve at home, and eventually he is inspired to paint his mother's torment in a way that changes his relationship with his parents forever.

Asher Lev isn't a black-and-white story of the old world versus the new world. Asher remains an observant Jew and never rejects his father's faith, just his father's contention that religion is our only way of understanding the world's mysteries. It's a subtle distinction, and this story is told in a subtle and effective way. Asher's art is never shown; the climactic exhibition of Asher's paintings in the final scenes is conveyed through Thom Weaver's evocative lighting, James Sugg's soft piano music, Daniel Conway's minimal set and the gripping words of Posner's script. It was a shrewd decision on Posner's part not to actually show us Asher's art; what it actually looks like doesn't matter as much as the effect that it has on others.

And we see that effect in the wide-ranging performances of Adam Heller and Gabra Zackman, who play not only Asher's parents but all of the other characters too. Heller is especially good as he uses clever changes in posture and accent to switch between playing the hardhearted father, the judicious Rebbe, a warm uncle and the colorful Jacob Kahn (the scratchy baritone he uses as Kahn is a real delight).

Adena Potok, the author's widow, served as Artistic Consultant on this production, and the care that she and Posner have used to craft this adaptation is evident. It's a show about art and religion, but it never feels preachy on either subject, and it's not just a series of dry debates either. In just 90 fast-moving minutes, it sparkles with life as it examines a struggle as old as the Torah and as new as the latest brush strokes on Asher's canvas.

My Name Is Asher Lev runs through March 15, 2009 at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 North Second Street. Ticket prices range from $29 to $48 and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-922-1122, online at www.ardentheatre.org or in person at the box office.


Hedda Gabler
Jennie Eisenhower and Sarah Sanford
The Arden's Asher Lev is a great example of how to adapt a novel to the stage and get nearly everything right. The Mauckingbird Theatre Company's new production of Hedda Gabler is the opposite: a textbook example of how to adapt a classic and get nearly everything wrong.

The Mauckingbird's aim is to present gay-themed works, so in this version of Henrik Ibsen's 1890 landmark, Hedda's ex-lover Eilert Lovberg is not a man but a woman who cuts her hair short and dresses like a man to gain acceptance in a male-dominated academic world. That's not necessarily a bad concept; it could conceivably make for an interesting statement about gender roles as they relate to Hedda Gabler, a play that forever rewrote the rules on how women are depicted onstage.

But director Peter Reynolds' messy production doesn't do that. Instead, we get an odd mix of intimate drama and wildly inappropriate comedy. The tone changes from moment to moment, sometimes in the middle of a scene. And the acting styles are all over the place: yes, there are sensitive and intelligent performances by Cheryl Williams (as Aunt Juliana), Jessica DalCanton (as Thea), and Sarah Sanford (as Eilert), but there's also a cartoonish performance by Kristen O'Rourke, who hops around the stage like an idiot as Hedda's maid. Matthew Lorenz is far too young and callow to play the imperious Judge Brack, while Dito van Reigersberg, as Hedda's ineffectual husband, got laughs every time he walked onstage opening night (although I'm still not sure why).

There's so much nonsense going on here that Hedda herself gets lost in the shuffle. Jennie Eisenhower fights the good fight, but she never gets a chance to delve below the surface of Hedda's famously complex personality. She is defeated by Caroline Kava's adaptation, which veers between camp and tragedy and never lets Hedda seem like much more than a stock villain. Yet, in the show's second half, Hedda and Eilert share a tender moment that briefly lets us see what might have been had this production taken itself seriously from the start. It gives one hope that someday Eisenhower will appear in a production of Hedda Gabler worthy of her talent.

Hedda Gabler runs through January 29, 2009 at the Adrienne Theatre's Second Stage, 2030 Sansom Street. Ticket prices range from $15 to $20 and may be purchased by calling the box office at 215-923-8909, online at www.mauckingbirdtheatreco.org or in person at the box office.


Photo for My Name Is Asher Lev: Mark Garvin


-- Tim Dunleavy



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