Portrait of an artist as a Hasidic young man

Ralph Scott, Isaac Nippert and Melissa Graves (from left) in CATCO and Gallery Players' co-production of My Name Is Asher Lev (photo by Ben Sostrom)
Ralph Scott, Isaac Nippert and Melissa Graves (from left) in CATCO and Gallery Players’ co-production of My Name Is Asher Lev (photo by Ben Sostrom)

By Richard Ades

The protagonist of My Name Is Asher Lev is still a boy when he begins drawing pictures of Jesus and nude women. Not surprisingly, the images upset his Hasidic Jewish parents.

“No Torah Jew would think of drawing such things,” thunders his father, Aryeh Lev (Ralph Scott).

But the parents soon learn that trying to stifle the youth’s artistic impulses is no easy task. Though he wants to be a good son and a good Jew, Asher himself (Isaac Nippert) seems unable to control his need for self-expression. The result is a recurring argument with his devout father and a source of stress for his mother, Rivkeh (Melissa Graves), who tries to be loyal to both her husband and her gifted son.

Adapted from a novel by Chaim Potok, Aaron Posner’s one-act is set in a particular time and place: a Hasidic enclave in Brooklyn in the 1950s. The basic situation, however, is universal: The parents want their child to obey them and respect their traditions, while the child is driven by his need to find his own way.

Though the play sometimes seems like a collection of biographical scenes rather than a cohesive drama, the unifying factor is Asher’s fierce need to create art. Nippert expresses that need with a portrayal that incorporates joyful discovery and youthful enthusiasm—and, sometimes, youthful petulance. All the while, he succeeds in suggesting ages as young as 5 without turning into a childish caricature.

As Asher’s mother, Graves projects quiet dignity and equally quiet desperation. Because we see Rivkeh through her son’s eyes, she comes off as more of a symbol of long-suffering motherhood than a flesh-and-blood woman, but Graves fills the need by radiating an aura of profound sadness.

Graves also doubles as a couple of relatively minor female characters, but it’s Scott who does the heavy lifting in terms of multiple roles. In addition to Asher’s father, he plays a supportive uncle, a local Hasidic leader and, most notably, Jacob Kahn, a secular Jewish artist who becomes Asher’s mentor. Though some of the portrayals carry a whiff of stereotype, Kahn comes across as distinctive and fully human.

Under Kahn’s exacting tutelage, Asher is encouraged to remain true to his Hasidic identity while studying the European and largely Christian traditions that shaped Western art. The resulting tension leads to a climax that supplies the drama—melodrama, even—that much of the play lacks.

Steven C. Anderson’s sensitive direction makes the most of the work’s strengths, including its portrait of a youth torn between his art and his devotion to his family and faith. Jarod Wilson’s lighting design brings out every nuance of that portrait, while well-chosen background music adds both drama and ethnic flavor. Eric Barker’s painterly scenic design includes a floor divided into multiple, odd-shaped levels and distorted windows that play a symbolic role in later scenes.

The sum total of all this effort is a nearly perfect staging of an interesting, if not-quite-perfect, work of theater.

CATCO and Gallery Players will present My Name Is Asher Lev through Nov. 9 in Studio Two, Riffe Center, 77 S. High St. Show times are 11 a.m. Wednesday, 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 95 minutes. Tickets are $11.50 for Wednesday matinees, $30 Thursday, $45 Friday-Saturday and $41 Sunday. 614-469-0939 or catco.org.

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Recorded memories prove invaluable in dystopian murder mystery

Sharing a rare moment of peace and happiness are (from left) Cloud (Stephen Woosley), Meryl (Katharine Pilcher), Charlotte (Colleen Dunne) and Mordecai (Travis Horseman) in the world premiere of Memory Fragments (photo by Andy Batt)
Sharing a rare moment of peace and happiness are (from left) Cloud (Stephen Woosley), Meryl (Katharine Pilcher), Charlotte (Colleen Dunne) and Mordecai (Travis Horseman) in the world premiere of Memory Fragments (photo by Andy Batt)

By Richard Ades

Following the world premiere of Memory Fragments last week, playwright Sam Wallin described the mystery as an example of “cyberpunk.” He explained that this is a form of science fiction that mixes a futuristic setting with elements of film noir.

Well, it’s definitely science fiction, and it’s definitely set in the future. The film-noir part isn’t quite so obvious. The scene breaks are accompanied by the kind of jazzy noodlings that would have made Sam Spade feel right at home, but the scenes themselves fail to capture the dark moodiness that characterized Spade’s world.

No matter. Memory Fragments may not be noir-ish, but it’s never boorish. As long as you don’t mind being confused for much of the running time, it’s an intriguing murder mystery.

The hero is a police detective named Cloud (Stephen Woosley) who’s assigned to investigate the death of a barista named Mordecai (Travis Horseman). Cloud’s first job is to determine whether the man was murdered or committed suicide.

In this version of the near future, people’s memories are recorded and stored so that they can be played back as needed. Ordinarily, this makes Cloud’s job pretty easy. In Mordecai’s case, however, the fatal wound destroyed all but 17 fragments of the victim’s memory. Along with Jerome (Andy Woodmansee), an annoying stranger who inserts himself into the investigation, Cloud begins watching the fragments in hopes of solving the case.

It’s through the recorded memories that we meet a number of people who played a role in Mordecai’s final days, including a new girlfriend (Colleen Dunne), a male psychiatrist (Andy Batt), a lascivious female psychiatrist (Laura Spires) and a mysterious man in a brown suit (Erik Sternberger). Cloud attempts to sift through the clues with help from his late wife, Meryl (Katharine Pilcher), whom he frequently resurrects in the virtual world where he spends most of his time.

Eventually, the mystery of Mordecai’s death is solved, but not until more people have died—and not until Cloud has followed the evidence to the upper echelons of the two huge corporations that control this future society.

Speaking after Thursday’s preview performance, Wallin and director Batt revealed that MadLab spent two years planning the play’s premiere. Part of the delay was due to the problem of portraying the work’s frequent shifts between the present and the past, and between physical reality and virtual reality.

With help from designers Brenda Michna (scenery and lighting) and Peter Graybeal (sound), Batt’s production succeeds admirably. Especially effective are the gauzy curtains that separate the present from the past, as represented by the recorded memories.

Also admirable is the large cast, which also includes Julie Ferreri and MaryBeth Griffith. The portrayals are rooted in emotional reality, which helps to ground a play that otherwise could disintegrate into a confusing mixture of sci-fi jargon and dystopian paranoia.

To be sure, Memory Fragments still challenges viewers to keep up, but MadLab keeps them so entertained that they’re happy to make the effort.

Memory Fragments will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday through Nov. 1 at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 2 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $12, $10 for students/seniors, $8 for members. 614-221-5418 or madlab.net.

Hollywood has-been seeks comeback in Webber musical

Norma Desmond (Gina Handy) tangoes with Joe Gillis (Chris Shea) in Short North Stage’s production of Sunset Boulevard (photo by Heather Wack)
Norma Desmond (Gina Handy) tangoes with Joe Gillis (Chris Shea) in Short North Stage’s production of Sunset Boulevard (photo by Heather Wack)

By Richard Ades

One of Sunset Boulevard’s two most famous lines comes early on. When a struggling writer stumbles into Norma Desmond’s Hollywood mansion and tells her she “used to be big,” the former silent-film star replies: “I’m still big. It’s the movies that got small.”

Movies may or may not be smaller nowadays, but movie-based stage musicals are often extravaganzas. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film certainly was. In fact, the 1994 Broadway production was so expensive that it ran for more than two years and still managed to lose millions.

Short North Stage’s production isn’t quite that big, but it’s still huge by Columbus standards. Michael Brewer’s two-story set effectively stands in for Norma’s grandiose mansion and other locations, with help from video segments projected on two large screens. Moreover, music director P. Tim Valentine’s offstage band is sizable enough to handle Webber’s soaring score.

If director Scott Hunt’s staging fails to consistently match the power of Wilder’s classic, it’s partly because the nourish film is tricky source material for a stage musical. Just the right touch is needed to carry off its blend of cynicism, desperation and passion.

One problem is that leading lady Gina Handy only occasionally projects the brittle mixture of grandiosity and insecurity that marks Norma Desmond, an ex-celeb who clings to the belief that the world is eager for her return. At Thursday’s preview performance, Handy also was decidedly pitchy on her first big solo (Surrender), though her voice was better on later, quieter numbers.

Jarod Wilson’s bland lighting design is another disappointment. This tale of a woman lost in the caverns of her ego-driven delusions cries out for uber-dramatic lighting effects, and it seldom gets them.

Most of the cast does strike the right chords, beginning with Chris Shea as Joe Gillis, the struggling screenwriter who wanders into Norma’s abode and ends up falling under her dangerous spell. Perhaps Shea could project a bit more world-weariness as Joe, who has become tired of the ass-kissing it takes to prosper in Hollywood, but he has no trouble earning our attention and concern.

As Max, Norma’s mysterious butler, Christopher Moore Griffin is appropriately reserved and sings with the show’s deepest, richest voice. The only drawback is that Max’s lyrics sometimes get buried under a droning German accent, so a little more enunciation would be helpful.

The fourth major character, script editor Betty Schaeffer, is played by Cassie Rae. The perky blonde proved in Short North Stage’s early-2014 production of A Grand Night for Singing that she’s a charismatic performer with an irresistible voice. She proves it again here, to the extent that Betty’s growing affection for Joe becomes one of the show’s strongest threads.

Smaller parts are divided among a group of worthy actors who each play multiple roles. Doug Joseph, for example, portrays “Finance Man #1” in addition to legendary director Cecil B. DeMille.

Of the nearly sung-through musical’s two acts, Act 2 is stronger, as it contains several dramatic payoffs. They include the show’s other famous line, Norma’s surreal announcement that she’s ready for her close-up.

Surprisingly, this is the first time we see clearly just how many years separate Norma from the glamorous, youthful image she carries around in her head. Up until then, she’s appeared to be little older than the writer who’s joined her household.

If only she’d posed for that close-up a couple of hours earlier, the depths of her delusion would have been easier to understand.

Short North Stage will present Sunset Boulevard through Oct. 19 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.