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As Aggregate Theatre Company seeks to transform the structures of a traditional theatre experience to increase access to the art form, they are well on their way with My Name is Asher Lev. The nomadic company has found themselves housed for their current production between two sites, Ridge Road Baptist Church of Raleigh and Jewish for Good of Durham, as the centerpiece of the Mosaic Festival. The partnership between two communities of faith and the theatre community casts a wide net for audiences perhaps unfamiliar with either counterpart. Unfamiliar need not mean uncomfortable though, as the three organizations have cultivated a festival of art for every interest. You can find the full schedule of art and music events (a lot of which are free!) here.
As the main event, My Name is Asher Lev, adapted by Aaron Posner from Chaim Potok's novel of the same name, is an excellent culmination of the values and intentions of the Mosaic festival and Aggregate Theatre's ambitions to bring theatre to audiences of diverse generations and walks of life. Asher Lev deviates from Aggregate's recent history of children's theatre with a coming-of-age story about a young Jewish man who wrestles to synthesize his passion for art and his commitment to his faith. At face-value, Asher Lev may sound so specific that it alienates a broader audience. The average theatre-goer may not expect to relate to the journey of a prodigious young painter and Hasidic Jew, but in the skilled hands of the Aggregate Theatre Company the overarching themes of family, faith, and purpose create conversations for any viewer.
The experienced cast and creative team at Aggregate carried off opening night of My Name is Asher Lev with confident ease at Ridge Road Baptist Church. Visual artist Sophia Lemieux lent her talents before the performance with live painting, a pre-show offering that will rotate with different artists and mediums for the run of the production. The performance opened to Sarah Wienecke's set design which presented the Levs' humble apartment with the distinct choice to leave picture frames blank and canvases unfilled. This allowed the audience to develop and evolve their own imagining of Asher's art as the play progressed. David Sebren's lighting design punctuated dialogue with abrupt color changes, much like Asher may have punctuated his artwork to draw attention to important features. Costume designer Jane Caradale provided simple pieces that clearly distinguished each character, which was particularly effective to clarify multiple characters played by the same actors.
Rebecca Bossen and Ryan Madanick mastered these multiple roles, most often Asher's mother and father. Bossen presented a beautiful, well-rounded Rivkeh, stricken with grief at the loss of her brother and providing a constant buffer between her husband and her son, without seeming fragile or hysterical. Madanick characterized a variety of male characters, each distinctive and complete. His portrayal of Asher's father Aryeh effectively put him at odds with Asher without casting Aryeh as an antagonist. In the titular role, Liam Yates clearly captured Asher's developing passion for art at every age and transitioned smoothly between narrator and character throughout the performance.
Under the direction of Marshall Botvinick, the small company clearly drew connections between Asher's commitment to his art, his father's commitment to their faith, and his mother's commitment to the family. With the family and their passions at the center of the story, Asher Lev effectively depicts the sacrifices that accompany the pursuit of passion and particularly a passion for art. The focus on Asher's art transcends the medium and Asher will surely strike a chord with performance and visual artists alike. Still, My Name is Asher Lev draws no conclusions and leaves viewers to consider for themselves if the pursuit of a dream is worth the sacrifice.
This performance repeats in Raleigh on February 5, 10, 11, 12. Additional performances in Durham at Jewish for Good are planned for February 16, 18, and 19. See our sidebar for details.