FringeReview UK 2020
Directed Georgia Green, designed by Cory Shipp, lit by Chris McDonnell with Sound Design by Lex Kosanke, Movement Director Rachel Hosker and Singing Coach Sarah Dacey. Till March 28th.
Last year the Orange Tree Directors’ Festival featured four works, two particularly fine. Josh Azouz’s The Mikvah Project is the pick, revived here with a new cast.
A man and a boy strip back the covers from a stage and a glittering blue-tiled pool appears, rippling water under pool lights. It’s a Mikvah, a prayer-cleansing immersion for (particularly Orthodox) Jews and it’s soon to be profaned. Eitan, 17 proclaims enthusiastically about Avi, 35:
You’ll love my friend… Imagine George Clooney, five inches shorter, 2 stone heavier and with a bulbous nose, that’s my friend.
Storytelling narrative such as this sashays in this intensely, tenderly layered two-hander about forbidden attraction. Azouz’s 2015 two-hander debut The Mikvah Project is more naturalistic than his bolder though equally tender Buggy Baby from 2018, a more ambitious, transgressive and theatrically magical work.
But within The Mikvah Project lies a shell of a tradition, filled with waters that take anything. It’s a shimmering metaphor for being as realistic as – a sink of water. You come out different, not always cleansed. As Avi considers what kind of Jews they are out of water he quips: ’Post-Modern Orthodox!’
That’s the trouble. Nevertheless we get some very creditable singing – singing coach Sarah Dacey deserves credit too for making the Hebrew compelling.
Azouz’s work blends a culture-within-culture, not a clash. Thus at a crucial point Avi tries a metaphor from football to explain himself:
Okay so you’re a gunner, an Arsenal fan since forever right, but there might be a moment… an urge, a flash of madness where he supports Spurs, but… it evaporates and he forgets his Spurs moment ever happened.
Rubbish Eitan reminds him and Avi knows it. It’s unthinkable a Gunner supporter could have a lapse like that! So where does that leave Avi, or indeed Eitan? Avi, married at 27. Though he declares he’s taking things slowly, Avi’s desperately trying with his wife Leyla for a child, for her sake, praying in that pool for sperm-count; indeed hoping its watery agency can work and dipping his head in the water nine times, not the obligatory three. It does cause Eitan to have an erection. Well no bother, Avi had those, he tells the embarrassed boy.
And why do you talk like a black man? Avi asks. There’s a generation between them and some things Avi will never get either.
Up to a sudden moment in the pool Eitan’s seems the kind of nice raucous boy fascinated by looking up Rachel’s skirts at school like everyone else, or laddishly fantasising about her breasts, all hetero-normative things he genuinely indulges in till he knows he can’t.
There’s a crossover, a lurch which horrifies Avi, played with slow watchful panic by Alex Waldmann. Who starts calling Eitan ‘mate’ in a laddish distancing, the language of hetero-strutting men.
It’s not just Eitan, he’s not just imagining it. Josh Zaré’s gawkish but strapping youth subverts normative roles; he looks like a junior footballer. Waldmann has the contained poise of a rock star, a man who quietly knows his attractiveness but never feels any urge to indulge it. You can see where this leads.
Waldmann’s assurance, part-avuncular, part-vulnerable simmers in his reactions to Zaré’s raw, zig-zag intensity. Zaré almost literally bounces off the walls – thanks to ever-fluid movement direction from Rachel Hosker.
The Mikvah Project is directed by Georgia Green with a tender pause and sense of unfolding a short, packed script. Cory Shipp’s design is spectacular: a blue-tiled immersion pool uncovered during the whole of the play’s 70 minutes where both actors repeatedly strip and immerse themselves, for prayer or immersive sanctuary. The simple surround and pool lights are lit by Chris McDonnell to haunting effect with sound design by Lex Kosanke.
The play expands borders because of a few narrative moments, Avi about his wife Leyla, in particular Avi’s inward but extreme responses to what’s happening. There’s a litanic way Azouz arranges his monologues.
One of the most telling is Avi’s reporting a casual conversation after noting ‘There are specks of coriander in her teeth./The talk inevitably leads to ‘children.’… I imagine us as pandas.’ This imagistic deflection grounds itself in self-deprecation, but you don’t forget it. Pandas, reluctant maters (unlike this couple sexually Avi declares) push us to wonder how reluctant Avi is to make love ‘forcefully’ as he reports.
I remember what happened in the Mikvah./The boy. The kiss./My chest tightens. I’m sweating./Leyla, I’m just going out for some air./She says ‘okay, do you want coffee?’
His response to her refusing to adopt elicits a brutal inward comment too: ‘I’ve married Doctor Mengele.’
What’s happening is Eitan’s peeling vulnerability. And Avi’s unpeeling awareness, like a layer of skin over the eyes. Each scene unpeels something withheld, some new skin.
Indeed just as Avi recalls this Eitan’s invoking him in dream: ‘I burn you. Actual fire comes out. Flames dance across your body. Your skin starts to fry and peel off …. you’re looking at me, like wanting me, like ON IT.’
Nakedness on stage spells vulnerability and exposure, though it’s less easy to portray either sexual affirmation or non-sexual nudity. More or less all this is on show.
So sheerly accomplished in many ways, this first play betrays a plot-point late on that’s a tad clumsy, unbelievable and unnecessary. It doesn’t need apologizing for and doesn’t effect the hauntingly quiet denouement. Waldmann and Zaré pitch their relationship and agon with consummate tact.
Green paces this with a rapt dispatch so it resonates in its quiet moments to take the density of text in, actors’ performances echoing over the waters. This has settled into a brave and beautiful play.