Applause bellowed from every pair of hands as the lights flashed on in The Orange Tree Theatre. I had just witnessed one of the four productions in this year’s Directors’ Festival hosted here, featuring emerging directors who have studied on the MA Theatre Directing course at the Orange Tree and St Mary’s University. And I think I got lucky; under Georgia Green’s direction, ’The Mikvah Project’ emerged victorious as a fresh, fierce and contemplative storytelling of love, boundaries, and faith.
At just an hour long, the play, written by Josh Azouz, firstly introduced us to our two players Avi and Eitan, and then to the Mikvah placed in the heart of the theatre’s intimate in-the-round space. This Mikvah, described by Avi, is a pool of water in which one ritually immerses in the Jewish faith. As Avi demonstrated; the water whooshed rhythmically, bathing and immersing the space…I was entranced. I could see every pair of eyes had locked on, as mine had, to this slow, perhaps even intimate act. It’s clear Georgia [Green] wanted this focus from the outset, highlighting the Mikvah’s importance both in faith, and the story, creating an interesting axis for the play to pivot around.
We dived in with a series of rapid-fire monologues explaining Avi and Eitan’s differing life phases. Avi is settled, 35 and married, he loves his wife and they’re trying for a baby…something he’s trying to encourage by immersing in the Mikvah. Whereas Eitan, 17, is excitable, fiery and daydreaming at college and sneaking into clubs with his brother’s ID. Their paths cross every Friday at the Mikvah, each encounter bringing them emotionally, and later physically closer together, as they chat about family, relationships, their faith, and, of course, football.
Eitan, exuberantly played by Dylan Mason, is the dominant, coming-of-age force, pushing all available boundaries around him [I pray I wasn’t alone in experiencing flashbacks to memories of my sometimes obnoxious teenage self…]. Though cringing hard, it was easy to empathise with his pressures of family expectation, understanding his sexuality, and feeling, well, lonely. His energy and boyish naivety kept the feeling light however as he bounced around the Mikvah, coaxing and engaging Avi who, thoughtfully played by Robert Neumark Jones, seemed buoyed by Eitan, offering him the advice and guidance he’s seeking.
The pace of the play quickened after Eitan kisses Avi in the Mikvah one evening [I definitely gasped]. Though he was initially repulsed, it was gripping to watch Avi wrestle with his feelings; does he want this too? Does this change his feelings towards his wife and his faith? Is this just an early on-set mid-life crisis? Is it just…a crush?
You could feel a tangible change in the atmosphere of the theatre. The boundaries of their relationship had blurred and developed from familial, or confidantes, to something more. Despite the growing intensity, their developing relationship reached a head after Avi abandons a wild weekend away with an enamoured Eitan, returning home to find his wife pregnant – his Mikvah immersing had worked.
Following the waining of Avi’s interest due to his joy of a growing new family, Dylan [Mason]’s expression of the hard fall that follows from a heady first love was exemplary. Holding the same concentration from the room as Avi’s earlier immersion, his performance was captivating, it felt raw and painful and encouraged further flashbacks of heartbreak I’m sure we all have. I would agree with The Orange Tree Theatre’s testimony here of “the audience wrapped around the players” for “close-up magic”. It was indeed magic.
The dissolution of their fling felt dramatic and short, and the end of the play seemed to come around quickly. Before I knew it, the last line “I feel nervous” was uttered by Eitan and the lights came up to the aforementioned and deserved applause.
But I wanted more.
I wanted to know if Avi’s feelings for Eitan were real and if Eitan’s were just a youthful crush or something more. I wanted to know what role their faith and the Mikvah would play if Avi and Eitan had pursued their relationship; has Avi succumbed to pressure from his community to stay remain with his wife? And so on and so on.
Ultimately, I think my need for answers and more time with these characters is a testament to a high-quality performance and fresh new direction and writing. A highlight, being Georgia Green’s use of the Mikvah as a physical focal point in the room; a constant reminder to the audience of how these two characters had been brought together, and also how they might be kept apart. ‘The Mikvah Project’ is definitely one to see, and Georgia Green is perhaps one to watch!
Four stars for The Mikvah Project.
Words by Helen Brake for Anthem Online
Photographs by Robert Day