Review: MJTC's "Asher Lev" A Fine Example of Local Theater

[Updated: Barbara Brooks, MJTC’s Producing Artistic Director emailed on Mon. morning with  clarification that MJTC is a professional theater (with both Union and Non-Union talent) rather than a community theater company. I apologize for any confusion this error may have caused. All references to community theater have been corrected in the post below. For more info on MJTC’s history, click here]
The Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company opened their 16th season on Saturday evening to much applause, a $10,000 grant from the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (which will help underwrite a spring production) and a packed house excited to see the regional premier of My Name is Asher Lev.
As this was my first time at an MJTC production, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I suppose I shouldn’t have been but I was a bit surprised to see that besides a few young (high school aged?) women who were with their families, I was the youngest member of the audience by at least 15 years. It seems as though Jewish community theater doesn’t draw twentysomething Minneapolitans or St. Paulites. The ticket prices might be a detractor – at $26 for a Saturday evening performance, I’m willing to bet that most people in my demographic would rather take their chances on the $30 rush line at the Guthrie. Nevertheless, Asher Lev is a decent show.
Adapted by Aaron Posner from Chaim Potok’s 1972 novel of the same name, My Name is Asher Lev tells the story of a young artistic prodigy who struggles to find his place as both an artist and an observant Jew. Set in the fictional Ladover Hasidic sect (based on the Lubavitch community) and told in the first person by Asher, the story tells of his childhood struggle to figure out if his artistic talent is a gift from the Ribbono shel Oylam or a curse bestowed by the Sitra Achra (or if, in the end, it even matters). While Posner follows the basic plotline and uses dialogue from the book, the theatrical version of the story is drastically abridged. Characters that play a sizable role in the book (Reb Krinsky for example) don’t show up at all on the stage and timelines are considerably condensed to the point of making the story feel incomplete. At intermission (which seemed a bit unnecessary for a 120 min. play), I overheard my neighbor say that the show was “nothing like the book.” And it’s true – while the adaption allows for a judicious use of space and a small enough cast to let even a small community theater produce the play, those familiar with Potok’s work may find themselves feeling like they’re drinking lemon water instead of the lemonade they expected.
Script disappointments aside, MJTC did a fine job with the production. The cast is deliberately minimal with 3 actors playing 8 roles. Logan Verdoorn makes his MJTC debut as Asher Lev. Verdoorn is a recent grad of the Atlantic Acting School (NYU’s famour Tisch School of the Arts) and it’s no surprise that he plays the role well (even if his hairstyle and facial features did make me think of Elijah Wood as Frodo a few times). Elena Giannetti plays Asher’s mother Rivkeh , art agent Anna Schaeffer and nude model Rachel (MJTC’s version only hints at nudity with a robe slipped provocatively off a shoulder). David Coral plays the older men in Asher’s life: his father Aryeh, The Rebbe, artist and mentor Jacob Kahn and Uncle Yizchok. Though it’s certainly not Coral’s fault, I couldn’t help myself from having a hard time seeing his “religious” characters as such. The reason? He wore a colorful, knitted kippah and his beard was trimmed close rather than the long, flowing beards that I typically associate with married Hasidic men (granted, the beard wouldn’t have worked well with the transitions to secular Kahn). Yes kippah politics is  a minor thing, but I can’t believe I’m the only one who noticed this…
The set was simple and suited the venue (the auditorium at the Hillcrest Community Center). Canvases lined the walls and a table/chairs set moved about the stage to suggest different settings such as Asher’s yeshiva or the Lev’s kitchen table. A large arch was turned by the actors to further shape the settings and for the most part it added but there were a few times that the movement detracted from the action. The only flaws in the technical aspects of the production were weird gels used to project circles of color that didn’t seem to add anything to the story (some of the lighting effects, on the other hand, were brilliant) and an awkward use of photos on canvas held by the actors as Asher walks through European city streets.
All in all, the MJTC production of My Name is Asher Lev is a fine example of a production from a smaller, local theater company: not a Broadway production but much better than a high school drama department performance. Would I normally pay $26 for a ticket to see a show like this one? Probably not. But the fact that proceeds from ticket sales benefit an important institution in Twin Cities Jewish life might change my mind. Maybe it would change yours too.

In accordance with FTC guidelines concerning bloggers, I’m disclosing that MJTC provided me with a complimentary ticket to review the show. My opinions are my own.