Unicorn Offers a Strong ‘Asher Lev’

The current show at the Unicorn, My Name is Asher Lev, directed by Cynthia Levin, has caught the theater world by storm. It is now running off-Broadway in New York, and the run is being extended. This means that nobody else in the country is allowed to produce the show. However, Levin, who is also the Unicorn’s producing artistic director, had the foresight to get the rights to this show before it blew up. The result is that there are only two places in the world to see this show right now — New York City and Kansas City.

It’s easy to see why Asher Lev is causing a stir. Based on the novel by Chaim Potok, it is a different look at the Jewish/Christian conflict than what is normally presented to the public. It’s about a young Orthodox Jewish man who discovers that he has a talent for drawing and painting. This call to the art world causes concern for his parents, but they reluctantly allow him to follow his passion.

The concern reaches epic proportions when Asher begins to draw and paint different versions of the crucifixion. For Asher’s parents, the Christian icon is a symbol of terror, a representation of abuse and murder that the Jewish people have endured at the hands of Christians over the centuries. Asher is forced to make a choice between his ultra-conservative community and his undeniable artistic passion.

The set is small and sparse, and there are no real scene changes, although the story does zig-zag through time and takes place in several locations. Everything is done with a creative use of lighting, and it’s done so well that it takes almost no time to get used to it. The play is easy to follow as Asher steps in and out of scenes to address the audience. He tells stories and provides context for the scenes.

Just as the set is small, so is the cast. There are about 10 characters, but only three actors. Like the significant, but subtle lighting changes, the actors alter themselves in small but substantial ways to portray the various influences in Asher’s life. Manon Halliburton plays all the female characters, and she is great at her portrayal not only of Asher’s torn mother, but a decidedly more worldly art gallery owner. Mark Robbins plays the male characters, except for Asher Lev. He brings a freshness and vitality to his parts, whether as an overworked father or an established artist looking for a student to mold to his vision.

Doogin Brown plays Asher Lev, and because Asher is in every scene, he doesn’t play any other roles. I’ve seen Brown in smaller Unicorn roles; he comes across as a rather brooding and internalized person. I wasn’t sure whether he would be able to carry a show with as many layers as this one. But he did. Brown really seemed to come into his own with this show and he gave an impressive performance. He came from his brooding base, but really embraced the journey of his character.

My Name is Asher Lev which has been extended through May 19, is a bracing, confrontational examination of religion, passion, and cultural pain. Take advantage of this rare situation and see the show before it hits the rest of the country. Tickets are available at www.unicorntheatre.org or by calling 816-531-7529, Ext. 10.

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