Living in a strictly Catholic country, we have often seen conflicts between religion and the arts. The Catholic bishops have risen up in protest against moral decadence in films (like Jose Javier Reyes' "Live Show" in 2001) and the visual arts (like the Mideo Cruz' "Poleteismo" at the CCP in 2011). This latest play staged by Twin Bill Theater group tackles this ticklish and touchy subject in the context of a young Jewish artist discovering his artistry. Should artists compromise their art in the face of their religion?
The setting is 1940s Brooklyn, New York. Asher Lev is a visual artist who grew up in a strictly traditional Hasidic Jew family. His father Aryeh is active in his political work, deeply religious and conservative in mindset. His mother Rivkeh is a typical Jewish mother who supported her son's inclination to art but was torn between the rift this art had brought between her son and her husband.
When Asher was 13, he was sent to train under an old Jewish artist of note named Jacob Kahn, who inculcated in Asher a deep and serious love for art. He taught how an artist should only be responsible for his art, and nothing else. An artist should be true to himself, and not be an artistic whore and sell out. As Asher gained fame and prominence in his chosen career, he painted a controversial masterpiece hailed by art critics, but went against his faith and family.
There are only three actors in this play. Nelsito Gomez plays the title role of Asher Lev. He was on stage talking for the whole 90 minute duration (no intermission) of the show, practically a continuous monologue with occasional conversations with other characters. The other two supporting actors play multiple roles. Robie Zialcita plays four characters, while Natalie Everett plays three. Only actors of remarkable acting versatility can portray these multiple roles distinctly, clearly differentiating one from another.
With his high-bridge nose and deep-set eyes, Nelsito Gomez certainly looked like he was born to play the Filipino Asher Lev. The role seemed so right for him, and he embodied Asher so intimately, you cannot imagine another local actor playing the role. He said he eyed the role even before this show was formally conceived. It took him four months to get those kilometric lines down pat. His performance during the press show was absolutely flawless, not a single line nor facial expression out of place. The audience was enraptured in his spirited delivery of Asher's lines at age 6, age 10, age 13 and as a young man.
Robie Zialcita had the unenviable task of bringing to life four different men -- Asher's strict father Aryeh, his liberated art mentor Jacob Kahn, his cheerful uncle Yitzchok and his kindly teacher Rebbe. Two of them even have diametrically opposite views from each other. Since these four men were all Jewish elders, Zialcita had to create four different personalities solely on the basis of their vocal qualities and accents. He impressively nailed these subtle transformations, going on and off stage changing characters in consecutive scenes. Zialcita's chameleon act was nothing short of amazing to witness on that stage so close up.
I see Natalie Everett in many plays of Repertory Philippines portraying various quirky and funny side characters. However, this performance of hers as Asher's mother Rivkeh is the deepest, most riveting one I've seen of her to date. Since this is an intimate theater setting, I can see the sincerity of Everett's eyes up close, seeing her tears actually well up in her eyes during the intensely dramatic scenes. In a few scenes, she transforms into glamorous art patron Anna Schaeffer, with her large glasses and stylish coats. There was a daring scene where she sits as the nude model Rachel, but since my seat was right behind her, I do not know how far she actually went.
The inside look into a conservative Jewish household was precious. Even if I did not understand fully a lot of the religious terminology, the tension and the emotion were genuine and heartfelt. This play was as much about the universality of family values, as it was about art vs. religion and the pursuit of one's dreams.
The words written by playwright Aaron Posner (adapted from the novel of Chaim Patok) were so visual and quotable, especially when it comes to his thoughts about art and artists. That scene of Asher's epiphany in front of Michelangelo's Pieta was staged with such power, thanks to the passion of Nel Gomez and the lights of Joseph Matheu. Even if all the sketch pads and oil canvasses were totally blank, we can see the paintings in our minds. My particular favorite segment was that scene where Asher was describing his controversially heretical painting, we squirm in our seats simply hearing the vivid description alone.
With a bare set (by Virgilio Balanon II), basic costumes, and spare score (by Vince Lim), it was the seamless ensemble work of the three skillful actors which embodies this play with vitality and pathos. Congratulations to director Steven Conde and the rest of the Twin Bill crew for staging this gem. This is simply one of the most powerful plays I had ever seen. In the words of the playwright, this is art that can hurt and can heal.
MY NAME IS ASHER LEV has the following show schedule: Saturday, Feb. 18 (3pm & 8pm), Sunday, Feb. 19 (3pm), Saturday, Feb. 25 (3pm & 8pm), Sunday, Feb. 26 (3pm), Saturday, Mar. 4 (3pm & 8pm) and Sunday, Mar. 5 (3pm & 8pm). Tickets at P 850, seats at first come first served. The venue is at The Performing Arts Recreation Center (PARC) Manila, # 494 Lt. Artiaga St., San Juan, Metro Manila.