Performing Arts

May 5, 2014

‘Water’: Theatricality overshadowed by history lesson

A medieval whodunit falls short of its potential in its world premiere.

Miami Theater Center’s world premiere of Everybody Drinks the Same Water captures the spirit of tolerance that reigned among the Christian, Muslim and Jewish citizens of 13th century Cordoba. However, history is the play’s friend and foe. At times, the thoroughly researched script resonates more like a history lesson than a compelling medieval whodunit.

When the play opens, the Christians have replaced the Muslim ruler, Abu Hassan. Queen Berenguela (Barbara Sloan) and her grandson, Prince Alfonso (Troy Davidson) have just moved into the royal residence at Cordoba, and mysteriously, Alfonso’s father, the king, has fallen ill. Soon after, people throughout the city become sick from the drinking water.

Queen Berenguela summons the Qadi (Steve Gladstone), a religious leader of the Muslim community, with the suspicion that the Muslims have poisoned the new king. The Qadi appears with his daughter Fatima, played by Diana Garle. A Jewish doctor (Howard Elfman) also appears at the queen’s behest, accompanied by his niece Leah (Yevgeniya Kats).

Accusations fly across religious and cultural lines and the three teenagers, Alfonso, Fatima, and Leah, set out to solve the mystery of the poisoned water.

Since history tells us that the Muslims, Jews, and Christians of Spain peacefully co-existed for hundreds of years, we know in advance that the mystery of the poisoned water will not turn Cordoba’s citizens against one another. Co-writers Stephanie Ansin (who also directs) and Fernando Calzadilla aren’t attempting to re-imagine history, but rather to deepen our understanding of it. Everybody Drinks the Same Water reminds us, for example, that necessity brings humans together more often than altruism does.

However, in terms of theatricality, the 70-minute play lacks rich, well-defined characters. The characters’ religions are obvious, but their personalities don’t come through. The play’s conflict is cleverly resolved, but that resolution doesn’t bring about meaningful change in any of the characters.

Part of this can be attributed to the fact that the play imparts too much history and back story in the form of exposition. For example, early on when Alfonso explains running water to the queen (“It’s one of the Romans’ great accomplishments!”) it sounds more like a historical fun fact rather than an engaging dialogue. These expository moments also contribute to a lack of variety in the play’s pacing.

In terms of production, Calzadilla’s set is spare, yet exquisite. An intricately designed stage rotates to reveal a colorful, tiled mosaic and later, the verdant hills of the country side. Likewise, Calzadilla’s costume design is functional and lovely. Scarves, veils, and other embellishments convey each character’s station in life and add beauty to the setting.

Incorporating vocals in Arabic and Middle Eastern instruments, Luciano Stazzone’s original musical score washes over the production in a tide of cultural confluence. Clean, simple choreography by Octavio Campos lends a celebratory flourish to the play’s ending.

While not a theatrical powerhouse, Everybody Drinks the Same Water is visually provocative and entertaining.

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