Blessed (and cursed) by the need to draw

AsherLev

YOU made this? The father (Alan Swerdlow), the mother (Louise Saint-Claire), and Asher Lev, the son (Robert Fridjhon). Photograph by Suzy Bernstein.

IN THE AGONISING moment when Asher Lev’s parents are revealed as utterly out of place in Asher’s world, the tectonic plates of this classic Jewish art story which first saw light of day in 1972, shift. It is a pivot crafted with sheer brilliance that holds this whole play together. But sadly, this interpretation of arguably the go-to novel for any young person who is born into a religious context and blessed or cursed with a talent to create art, is not completely flawless.

The stigma of iconoclasm in a strictly religious Jewish context is a very real one, and adapting this work for stage is complicated. It’s about the challenges a young boy with a talent for art in Hassidic America in the 1940s faced, a tale which spoke directly to the heart of every reader who has ever felt the passion of creativity. The adaptation is by and large solid, but it does feature the narrator speaking directly to the audience quite a lot, which does affect the tone of the material, making it unwittingly seem comedic in its sense of timing. Similarly, there are anomalies in the choice of costume for Asher Lev (Robert Fridjhon), which greatly affects the credibility of the role.

For one thing, he wears a yarmulke embroidered in silver thread and made of glossy satin that speaks of a stream of superficial Jewish fashion that would most certainly not have been de rigueur with a Brooklyn Jew who digresses from the rich phalanx of monolithic values and traditions with which he was raised. For another, he wears a natty little waistcoat which places him uncomfortably between the world of his parents and that of his teacher, not allowing him to belong credibly to either.

But the clothes are the least of it. Indeed, this is not Fridjhon’s best role. We’ve seen him shine and eclipse the stage with his craft, his wit and his wisdom, but his performance here lacks the kind of fierce agony that would contain the horror of banishment so central to the novel. You don’t see the child of six, ten or 13 who is depicted in the text. You don’t see Lev growing before your eyes. You don’t see the kind of raw energy and fierce determination that you may have seen in John Logan’s Red, performed a couple of years ago in this city, with a similar theme revolving around a young artist and his older teacher.

Rather, you’re brother to tears by the pain and authenticity articulated by Alan Swerdlow in his various rabbinical roles, and Louis Saint-Claire as the mother, the model and the gallerist, in turn. To her credit, director Moira Blumenthal doesn’t stint on the use of Yiddish and Hebrew words or religious references, which retain something of the work’s authentic texture, though it could alienate an audience not familiar with some of the terms.

Supported by a mediocre set, which teeters with the aid of numerous thin vertical panels between abstraction and realism, the work contains allusions to the crucifixion painting that draws the threads of the story together to its difficult end, but these allusions are at times hammered home with an obviousness that hurts the story. Also, that moment of banishment that Asher, as a young man, faces, once he has overstepped the line separating art from the rest of his values, seems too low key in the face of the enormity it would represent to a real Asher Lev.

Whether or not you have read the original text, you might well leave this play wanting to seek out your inner Asher Lev and enable him or her to grow the kind of courage to make art that defies all logic and astonishes and frightens the world. And for this, the basic nub and richness of the story which remains intact, much of the flaws in the work become by and large forgivable.

  • My Name is Asher Lev is adapted for stage by Aaron Posner, based on the eponymous book by Chaim Potok. It is directed by Moira Blumenthal and performed by Robert Fridjhon, Louise Saint-Claire and Alan Swerdlow in the Studio Theatre, Montecasino complex, Fourways, until September 3. Call 011 511 1988 or visit pietertoerien.co.za
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On losing the plot and laughing all the way home

PlayWrong

THINGS fall apart: from left, Robert Fridjhon, Sive Gubungxa, Nicole Franco and Russel Savadier. Photograph by Christiaan Kotze.

YOU HAVE AN inkling as to what you can expect by the very name of this production, and you won’t be disappointed: very few things actually go right in this insane little bit of farcical frippery. The sheer skill that goes into clowning at its classically best, is remarkable, and this madcap cast of eight projects the loosely held together tale of a murder performed by an amateur dramatics association. And loosely is truly the operative adjective, when it comes to how the ingenious set itself plays a seminal and pants-wettingly funny role in the shenanigans.

From a dog that is mimed to a clock that doubles as the female lead, the work gets wilder and more insane as it unfolds. Corpses cry out in pain and floors fall. The sequence of lines becomes tumultuous at best, and the chap operating the special effects locates a missing Duran Duran CD amidst dramatic moments on stage. A bunch of keys doubles as a pen, some white spirits insinuates itself into the props in lieu of whisky and a portrait of a spaniel seconds as someone’s dad. In short, everything that can go wrong, does.

Featuring a splendid cast which hone this material and milk it for every laugh in the house, the work is headed by a delightful performance by Russel Savadier as the inspector. And while some of the errors in the splay of values of this work are so wrong that they’re too much – from the mispronunciation of terms by Roberto Pombo’s character to the woodenness of Sive Gubungxa’s character – the laughs will burst from your lips with abandon, and will develop their own momentum.

The danger of a play of its nature, however, is there is a limit to the kind of surprises that you can stomach, and at some moments, your eyes glaze over from too much raucous explosions and it becomes tedious. The crispness of the madness, the bizarreness of the mishaps becomes so great that they actually hurt the play.  If you think back to the inimitable Noises Off, performed a number of years ago in this theatre, there is a level of resonance with this work, but given that amateur is a part of how the work is premised, there’s a tad too much obvious over-acting, which makes the clowning veer a little on the side of crass. Something of Jemma Kahn’s Amateur Hour raises its head in this work.

Having said that, it’s a delicious bit of fun which will leave you still laughing as you drive home: the kind of tonic we all need right now.

  • The Play that Goes Wrong is written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields and directed by Alan Committie. It features design by Malcolm Terrey (costumes) and Bronwyn Leigh Gottwald (props co-ordinator) and is performed by Nicole Franco, Robert Fridjhon, Sive Gubangxa, Craig Jackson, Theo Landey, Roberto Pombo, Russel Savadier and Louis Viljoen at the Pieter Toerien Theatre, Montecasino Fourways, until April 30 and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town from May 3 until June 17. Call 011 511-1988 or visit pietertoerien.co.za

Fridjhon’s Sherlock simply queens it

sherlockholmes

DOING it for Queen and country: Robert Fridjhon, Bronwyn Gottwald and Craig Jackson putting twirls on the Sherlock Holmes tradition. Photograph courtesy pietertoerien.co.za 

SOMETHING HAS TO be said for the intricate melding of the minutiae of Victorian language with contemporary ideas, the blossoming into life of a multitude of characters supported by the hand-held technology resonant of radio theatre, and the shenanigans and skulduggery penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in the 19th century. All in one evening’s theatre experience. Playwright and performer Robert Fridjhon brings all of this together with utter finesse.

But it is the directorial hand of Alan Swerdlow that adds the cherry on top of this very fine and beautifully crafted piece of work which will have you laughing out loud even if you have come to the theatre on your own. Blending sophisticated if oft very rude repartee and a rash of puns with sheer slapstick comedy and engagement with the audience might not be everyone’s cup of tea – and it certainly isn’t within every cast’s capabilities – but here you get it all, tweaked by an exceptionally ably cast into an intelligent and nuanced laugh-a-second fest. It’s Sherlock Holmes with a dollop of farce, a peppering of British self-deprecation and some of the most hilarious costume decisions you can imagine.

And while there are some digressions in a Goonish or a Monty Pythonesque direction, and you may expect to see a dead parrot at any moment, you don’t: the references are contained and teased out as references and the work holds its own with complete excellence, foraying into issues of sexuality that the Sherlock Holmes tales have always hidden under carpets and in cupboards.

As with many performed murder mysteries reaching from the repertoire of film stars such as Margaret Rutherford and Myrna Loy, often it is the hilarity of the tale rather than the nitty gritty or bloodiness of the crime that are the central focus. Similarly, Fridjhon’s Sherlock Holmes teases apart an alleged stealing of the famed Koh-i-Noor diamond, the biggest in the world, which is owned by Queen Victoria, into a madcap journey between England and France, with a bit of Indian colonialism in between, replete with a couple of murder victims who are actually not dead: it’s stuff to make your head spin.

The work’s small versatile cast simply sparkles: and the helpless laughter you experience in the context of sheer beautiful farce pervades, as the work casts the whole improvised business of a play within a play on a theatre stage. Craig Jackson as Dr Watson (amongst others) and Bronwyn Gottwald as the inimitable Mrs Hudson (amongst others), are utterly perfect for the complexity of the roles, and everything from a self-standing big dress for Queen Victoria to a cat’s tail which becomes the British Prime Minister’s moustache will have you screeching with mirth. But a warning to the unsuspecting: Don’t see this play on a full bladder. It’s as good as it gets.

  • Sherlock Holmes and the Curse of the Queen’s Diamond: An Unrecorded Case, by Royal Request is written by Robert Fridjhon and Bronwyn Gottwald and directed by Alan Swerdlow. It is performed by Robert Fridjhon, Bronwyn Gottwald and Craig Jackson at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino theatre complex in Fourways, until January 15, and at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town, January 18-28. Visit pietertoerien.co.za

Bohemian Rhapsody’s glorious underbelly

bohemianrhapsody

ANYWAY THE WIND BLOWS: Bohemian Rhapsody through the eyes of a painter, impeccably played by Robert Fridjhon. Photograph courtesy The Daily Maverick.

WHAT AN ABSOLUTE joy to watch a brand new piece of theatre crafted with compassion, structured with wisdom and levity and put together with an impeccable sense of focus. Robert Fridjhon brings you a back story for British rock band Queen’s most famous song ever, Bohemian Rhapsody, breathing muscular, colourful life into suppositions, in a complex, nuanced, rollicking monster of a production that you want to be able to bookmark and return to, again and again. Watching this production, you want to press “pause”, so that you can catch your breath, from time to time, in the wealth of nuance, language and thoughtfulness it unpacks.

Considered a mock opera by some, speculated as a musical interpretation of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment by others, the complicated song which has various parts and features rich haunting and unforgettable harmonies, tells a weird story of love and hate, murder and hell, but the true back story has never been revealed.

Fridjhon casts a magnificent presence over this heady work, which effectively raises the bar for theatre of this nature. Arguably, it will redefine Fridjhon as both performer and writer. Teasing the song’s lyrics apart, but never disrespecting them, this is a quirky story of a painter whose career is thwarted by poverty, a philandering character called Lazarus and paranoia, amongst other things. It’s a grim tale brought into vivid and intoxicating focus with beautiful language, a whole gamut of art historical asides and puns, and a reflection on the 1970s when the song was born that will leave you with the smell of linseed oil in your heart and head.

Don’t expect to see a musical interpretation of the song, but if you do love the music and know it well, this theatre work offers deeply intelligent resonances with the music, which is deftly threaded through its texture. But even if you don’t know the song, the play is robust, watchable and wise enough to hold its own. Structured elegantly with refrains and satisfying narrative rhythms of repetition, the work sees Alan Swerdlow’s direction at its very best, and a mature understanding of the interface of set with sound, which never stoops into being gimmicky or invasive while it flawlessly retains credibility and an almost gothic sense of horror.

It’s another brilliant achievement for Pieter Toerien and Montecasino: something truly not to be missed.

  • Bohemian Rhapsody: The Untold Story is directed by Alan Swerdlow and written and directed by Robert Fridjhon. Featuring set and lighting design by Alan Swerdlow and Francois van der Hoven, it performs at the Studio Theatre, Montecasino in Fourways until April 17. Call 011 511 1818 or visit http://www.montecasinotheatre.co.za