Two men – well, one man, one boy-slash-almost-man – keep meeting at the same Jewish ritual bath (the eponymous mikvah). At first it’s coincidence, and then, slowly, it becomes something a lot more deliberate. They know each other from going to the same synagogue – the elder one, Avi, (Alex Waldmann), clear-gazed and with his barriers firmly up, is married to a woman and prays for his balls before getting into the water in the hopes that it’ll “make [his] sperm swim.” The other, Eitan (Josh Zaré) is seventeen – all boisterous, puppy-dog energy at the prospect of, well, everything, occasionally dampened by the random indignities of being a teenager – errant erections, wet dreams, and words spoken out of turn. They strip down, they clean themselves, they pray, they sing, they immerse themselves, they talk, they edge close together and then far apart.
I love Josh Azouz’s second play, Buggy Baby, for its wild abandon, its day-glo surrealism and tough, dark throughline. And there are shades of those ideas in his debut, but for the most part, The Mikvah Project is something far quieter and more meditative. It’s not tightly wound – not that Buggy Baby was either – it winds and stretches, unfurling itself into something which feels as fluid as the rippling water at the centre of Cory Shipp’s washed-smooth design, with all its soft greys and glassy blues. Fittingly, Shipp creates an airy, breathable atrium space, but one which remains hemmed in on all four sides.
Georgia Green navigates the skipping, stuttering eroticism of the text with a light hand, deftly conducting Waldmann and Zaré. The duo have a strange, pulsating chemistry which holds strong even as they stand at opposite ends of the space, water moving between them, Avi’s folded arms bouncing off against Eitan’s open palms. They give these tender, exposing performances, baring themselves like the blue veins at the top of your wrist. And you can tell so much about them by the way they immerse themselves in the mikvah (so much wordless storytelling is done through Rachel Hosker’s gently empathetic movement direction). Avi has total control and focus, droplets rippling off his back as he smoothly rises from the water. Eitan, in comparison, lounges like he’s on holiday, splashing and ducking like a little kid at the lido. Immersing in the mikvah is cleansing ritual, and in Azouz’s hands, that ritual becomes something that is both bigger than itself and yet utterly distilled – purifying, transforming, and exposing both of them. Tradition, belief, and community can both free and constrain, often at the same time. It is profoundly unjudgemental. Shipp’s tripartite pool design separates the waters with two glittering mosaic barriers – there are boundaries, and yet Eitan and Avi find their own ways of slipping through the gaps – even if, eventually, those barriers hold steady.
Waldmann’s depiction of Avi is endlessly empathetic, seeking out and handling his fears, confusion, and inconsistencies with utter generosity, and Zaré as Eitan is beautifully effusive – Eitan somehow manages to be both brazen and sly in his seduction techniques in a way that only a teenager could be, and Zaré communicates that baffling seventeen-year-old bolshiness effortlessly. Green’s production is at it strongest when it zeroes in on these two and their halting waltz of a relationship – at its best, they feel like two planets circling each other, simultaneously thrilled and fearful of what seems like a pre-destined collision. But when Azouz’s text reaches for broad, surrealist heights, the direction falters, feeling a little too rooted to the ground to properly take flight. But, then again, Azouz never quite lets Avi and Eitan get the fairytale he hints towards. It’s a small quibble – really, the production is one to sink into, generous and softly-lapping like waves. The Mikvah Project can sometimes feel as slippery as drenched pool tiles, but there is a hot, heavily beating heart at its core.
The Mikvah Project is on at Orange Tree Theatre till 28th March. More info here.