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8 December 2013

Must-see shows take audience on emotional roller coaster

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“Making God Laugh”

Woody Allen once said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans.” It’s a typically wry quip from the famous director, but nonetheless has a ring of truth to it. The Actors’ Playhouse explored both the humor and pathos in this assertion in its captivating production of “Making God Laugh.”

The play was written by Sean Grennan, which follows an American family through 30 years of holiday gatherings. A decade separates the events of each scene, and though the fashion, cars and careers may come and go, what never changes is the inevitable wisecracking, quarreling and love which mark any family reunion. Just like in real life, the script often turns on a dime from light-hearted teasing to an explosion of hidden tension and then back again as the two parents and three children interact.

The Actors’ Playhouse’s production showcased five brilliant actors and actresses who proved their incredible emotional range over the course of the show. The chemistry between the family members was remarkable, as every actor crafted truly believable and dynamic relationships with each of their fellow cast members. The show as a whole had the feel of an edgy sitcom; a priest, an actress and a jack-of-all-trades return to the home of their conservative parents, and wacky antics ensue.

Each of the children had their own signature brand of humor which combined into a delightful comedic combination. Rick (Gregg Weiner) brought over-the-top innuendo and paranoia, Maddie (Deborah Sherman) was the epitome of dark sarcasm, and Tom (Michael Focas) delivered witty punchlines at a mile a minute pace. In addition, running gags such as their mother Ruthie’s (Angie Radosh) universally reviled “Fantasia Dip” and the taking of a family photo at the end of each scene were audible crowd-pleasers.

However, in a testament to Grennan’s skill as a playwright, these ongoing jokes return in the second act with a far more poignant purpose. Ruthie has begun to experience the onset of dementia, and while her children and husband (Peter Hait) display the same charming quirks as earlier in the play, the show’s conclusion is brimming with much subtler emotional resonance than the campy hilarity of the opening scene. The family traditions take on a deeper meaning in light of the situation. It is a testament to the skill of the actors that they were able to find the catharsis in this denouement while maintaining the light-hearted spirit of the show.

Tech played a vital role in creating some of the productions most hysterical moments. Period-appropriate costumes for each decade were often delightfully tacky (particularly the themed sweaters of Ruthie, and the “trendy” garb of Maddie), and props such as Rick’s 1990s era cell-phone were a hilarious reminder of days gone by. Additionally, music and news broadcasts in transitions helped establish cultural context, while simultaneously covering for scene changes which would otherwise have seemed far too long.

The production is a hilarious expression of the glue which holds even this most fractured of families together: the love they have for each other.

Where: Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 3 p.m. on Sundays, through Dec. 29

Cost: $45 to $53

For more information, call 305-444-9293 or visit actorsplayhouse.org.

 

 

‘My Name is Asher Lev’

The lights come up on the stage. “My name is Asher Lev,” the actor announces to the audience, flanked by his parents watching from the background. What follows are 90 minutes of exploring exactly what that means; a struggle of identity, tradition and passion which is alternately joyous and devastating. GableStage’s remarkable production of “My Name is Asher Lev” is the rare play which holds its audience utterly spellbound, fully immersed in an eye-opening journey of one man’s search for himself.

“My Name is Asher Lev” is an adaptation by Aaron Posner of the eponymous 1972 novel by Chaim Potok. The first off-Broadway production opened in 2012 and garnered tremendous critical acclaim, including the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Off-Broadway Play. The show follows the character throughout his childhood and adolescence growing up in a Hasidic Jewish community in 1950s Brooklyn. However, Asher is also an artistic prodigy, whose drawing talent is apparent even at the young age of 6. Despite his father’s disapproval, he finds that his urge to create art cannot be denied, even if it flies in the face of religious tradition and tears his family apart.

GableStage’s three-person cast breathed such profound life into their characters that it was easy to forget that they were actors. This achievement is made all the more impressive by the fact that the script demanded vast transformations from all three; the protagonist appears from ages 6 to 18, as well as in the form of an older narrator, and the actors portraying his parents were also called upon to embody supporting roles which were pivotal to the plot.

Etai BenSchlomo gave a passionate and dynamic performance as Asher Lev. He crafted an innumerable string of memorable moments which spanned the emotional spectrum. BenScholomo held the hearts of the audience in the palm of his hand from the start, winning their sympathy as a naïve 6-year-old (no small feat for an adult actor), and then delivering poignant punches to the gut with his anguished revelations in fourth-wall breaking monologues. He wrung every drop of meaning out of the script, to awe-inspiring effect.

Married couple Avi Hoffman and Laura Turnbull were no less superb in their rotating lineup of roles. Hoffman in particular was the consummate chameleon; he brought Asher’s deeply religious father Aryeh Lev, his iconoclastic artistic mentor Jacob Kahn, and even the leader of the Hasidic Jewish community, the Rebbe, to life with equally potent and compelling depictions. Scenes between the Lev family crackled with intensity and an electric chemistry which forced the audience to the edge of their seats. There were audible gasps at particularly climactic moments, the highest compliment which could be paid to the work of the cast.

Every once in a while, a show comes along which has the power to change the way you see the world. “My Name is Asher Lev” is one of those shows, conveying a stirring message about faith, art, family and discovering who you are meant to be.  Heartrending and hilarious, GableStage has crafted a production which is an absolute must-see. If you watch only one play this semester, make it “My Name is Asher Lev.”

 Where: GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral GablesWhen: 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays through Dec. 22Cost: $15 to $55

For more information, call 305-445-1119 or visit gablestage.org.