As I entered the Goethe Institut for the opening performance of Airswimming (Abridged), the sky over the District had become a solid mass of gray clouds. Because all I of knew of the play was that it told the story of two women living together in a London asylum for more than 50 years, I thought this was apt, mood-wise.
I was pleasantly surprised to find, rather than a wholly somber affair, one of the brightest spots of my Capital Fringe experience thus far.
Directed by John Moletress, this production marks the DC debut of Charlotte Jones’s original play, which premiered in London in 1997. Based on true events, the story chronicles the unexpected friendship that develops between Dora (played by Alison Bauer, making her DC theatre debut) and Persephone (portrayed by Julia Smith), who are locked up in an institution for the criminally insane for the offenses of deviancy and promiscuity, respectively.
What makes Airswimming so remarkable is that, while it’s only ever the two women on stage, they seem to embody a whole company’s worth of roles. In the most obvious sense, this is because they’re essentially playing two different people each: The show is billed as a “dual-reality surreal dramedy” because the characters also inhabit another dimension of their own creation in which they go by the names Dorph and Porph, idolize Doris Day, may or may not be witches, and are the finest synchronized airswimming team in all of Britain.
But, in a less literal way, it is fascinating to watch them switch back and forth between roles in each other’s lives as prescribed by their situation and society – these two adept actresses at turns bring to life the ups and downs of female friendship, the mother-daughter relationship, the disconnect between the young and old, and even the interplay between masculine and feminine.
There are other themes at play to be sure – questions of whether insane asylums make people well or actually drive them crazy; the casual cruelty of one’s supposed friends and family; and the inescapable passage of time. But it is a credit to the actors that they never let the larger themes or the plot’s source material overtake its heart: the genuine and realistically acted bond between two women.
The only issues that threatened to break the spell were technical. The show employs a lighting effect to mark the transition between realities, and there were often awkward lags in making the switch. In the beginning, a light flickered for a few minutes and it was for several moments unclear if it was supposed to be an effect or was a mistake. And, when any of these issues reared their head, the “whispers” of the crew briefly drowned out the artists’ dialog. But, to their credit, it never seemed to fluster the performers in the slightest.
Featuring an unexpected twist that made me immediately want to watch it over again from the beginning, Airswimming, thanks to the strength of its two female leads, cast a spell on me that made me more deeply invested in their relationship than I would have thought possible in such a short period of time.
As I exited the Institut 65 minutes later, the storm had passed, but Bauer and Smith’s performance continued to stay with me for much longer than that.
Airswimming (Abridged) has 5 performances, ending July 29, 2012 at Goethe Institut, 812 7th St NW, Washington, DC
Details and tickets
John rates this 5 out of a possible 5, making it a Pick of the Fringe!