Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Theatre review: The Mikvah Project

Last year the stage of the Yard Theatre got pretty dirty when Stink Foot flooded it with treacle, so it's understandable if it's due a thorough cleansing. A ritual Jewish cleansing, as it turns out in Josh Azouz's The Mikvah Project, for which designer Cécile Trémolières has put an actual, large heated pool on stage. The Mikvah, our narrators tell us, is a Friday night ritual usually associated with the most Orthodox Jews. 35-year-old Avi (Jonah Russell) has been married for seven years, happily so although his and his wife's inability to conceive is the main source of friction between them. He goes to the Mikvah to pray for a child, and while there strikes up a friendship with laddish 17-year-old choirboy Eitan (Oliver Coopersmith.) Unexpectedly, Eitan makes a pass at him, and even more unexpectedly Avi's protestations of not being interested don't ring that convincing, even to him.

The story traces the not-quite-relationship between the two, as their faith becomes a bigger barrier to exploring their feelings, even than Avi's commitment to his family.

Azouz's play is an odd little creature; with its short running time, a central relationship defined more by what it's not than by what it is, and inconclusive ending, there's something a bit frustrating about it. But then arguably that's the point; with both men refusing to identify as gay - and in Avi's case at least the attraction seems to be very specific to this one young man rather than any others - The Mikvah Project looks at a relationship that resists definition.

So it's fitting that Jay Miller gives it a production with something of an ethereal, poetic quality, a feel augmented by dreamlike underwater projections and particularly by Ezra Burke's soundscape, which sees the actors loop their own voices on a synthesizer live on stage. But it's also a playfully inventive show - I liked the gag that sees microphone stands make a comment about the actors' height difference, and the awkwardness it can bring to intimate moments.

It's left to Russell and Coopersmith to ground the show with appealing, funny performances. The story embraces the awkwardness of a religious ritual that demands aFULL-FRONTAL MALE NUDITY ALERT!from both men*, as the first sign of something other than friendship is when Eitan has to hide an erection caused by seeing Avi naked. Coopersmith's Eitan is cheeky but kind of lost, Russell's Avi believably conflicted, and they give the piece a lot of heart. It ultimately feels a bit incomplete, but it's certainly got a memorable identity that's all its own.

The Mikvah Project by Josh Azouz is booking until the 14th of March at the Yard Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 15 minutes straight through.

*cast for religious accuracy, which surely has to be above and beyond the call of a casting director's duty

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