Mysterious ‘Water’ examines boundaries of tolerance in Miami Theater Center play premiere

Stephanie Ansin knows that there was a full moon over Córdoba, Spain, on June 22, 1236.

The Internet, that glorious research tool, yielded that bit of specific information about the 13th century night sky. And as with so many other historic details, Ansin incorporated the moonlight into the script of Everybody Drinks the Same Water, her newest collaboration with co-author Fernando Calzadilla.

Opening Saturday at Miami Theater Center in Miami Shores, the world premiere play is set in what was then one of the world’s most advanced cities, home to Christians, Muslims and Jews. Artistic director Ansin, who is staging the show, and Calzadilla, who designed its set, hand-dyed costumes and did the lighting, researched the place and period over several years before coming up with a drama that incorporates real-life royalty, composite characters and invented ones.

“Those three cultures were living together and collaborating,” Ansin says. “We were interested in the boundaries of tolerance.”

“From my point of view, something special was happening there,” says Calzadilla. “There were advancements in science, technology, mathematics, astronomy and medicine. Greek texts in Arabic were translated into Hebrew, Latin and romance languages. That’s how Europeans came to know Aristotle.”

The playwrights set their piece just after the Christian King Fernando III of Castile and León took control of Córdoba, ending 500 years of Muslim rule. The play’s great mystery flows from the water traveling through the city’s Roman-built aqueducts: Anyone who drinks the water becomes deathly ill — the new ruler included.

“We wanted to set the play at a time of stress. There’s this new ruler, and he’s just been poisoned. So people needed to look for a scapegoat,” Ansin says.

The drama’s key characters are the Christian Queen Berenguela (Barbara Sloan), mother of the stricken king, and Prince Alfonso (Troy Davidson), the monarch’s son; a Jewish doctor (Howard Elfman) and his niece Leah (Yevgeniya Kats), a young woman studying to be a midwife; the Muslim judge or Qadi (Steve Gladstone) and his daughter Fatima (Diana Garle), a court copyist; Berenguela’s lady-in-waiting Elvira (Jessica Farr); and the knight Rodrigo (Joshua Jean-Baptiste).

The action follows Alfonso, Leah and Fatima as they set out to discover who — or what — has been poisoning the water. They get a big assist from a book left behind by the fleeing Emir as King Fernando was overtaking the city: The Materials of Medicine by the Greek doctor Dioscorides, a book translated from Greek to Latin to Arabic. In the play, Fatima translates from Arabic so that all three can glean potentially life-saving knowledge from the text.

Echoing the 12th century Jewish physician and philosopher Maimonides, Ansin says the play’s message isn’t simply one of tolerance.

“Tolerance isn’t the answer. That’s really veiled disdain,” she says. “We have to get beyond tolerance and see the other as ourselves.”

In preparing for the $240,000 production, Ansin and Calzadilla took separate trips to Córdoba, where they discovered such things as “a synagogue that was a church, with Islamic architecture,” Ansin says. Once they had their cast and the seven-week rehearsal period was underway, they took the actors on field trips to a synagogue, a mosque and a Catholic church. The performers watched a documentary, Cities of Light: The Rise & Fall of Islamic Spain, and had access to the playwrights’ extensive research.

“When we walked into rehearsal, there was a wall filled with maps and dates and pictures of aqueducts. The first day was like a lecture,” says Davidson, who has appeared in 10 previous shows for Ansin at Miami Theater Center (formerly the PlayGround Theatre).

“There was nothing left for us to research,” adds Sloan, who is making her Miami Theater Center debut. “Stephanie is so organized, so creative. … She really knows what she wants.”

Too, Sloan is savoring the longer-than-normal rehearsal process and the focus on movement that choreographer Octavio Campos is bringing to Everybody Drinks the Same Water.

“I love working with physical theater. I teach it, and I’m a dancer. I’m so totally in love with this process. But most theaters don’t have the time or money for it,” she says.

Davidson has worked at plenty of South Florida companies where the show goes on after just two or three weeks of rehearsal. That’s doable, but time does make a difference.

“Here, you work six days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. A family element happens quickly. You become a company,” he says.

In conjunction with the play, which is aimed at audiences ranging from middle school students to adults, Miami Theater Center is hosting a free family-friendly medieval street fair on Sunday and a scholarly panel discussion at Books & Books in Coral Gables on May 7.

Since making the switch from the PlayGround Theatre to Miami Theater Center almost two years ago, the company has continued to expand its programming, packing sold-out crowds into performances of the original work done in its SandBox Series, adding movies presented by O Cinema Miami Shores and more. Ansin says she hopes that the SandBox will become an even more significant incubator for new work, particularly theater pieces. And she and Calzadilla already have some ideas percolating for future main stage collaborations.

“We’re thinking of doing something about Yemaja, the Yoruban goddess of the ocean. Also Hedda Gabler or A Doll’s House. If I can get the rights, The Seven-Year Itch. And maybe something about Ganesh,” she says. “A balance of something new with something looking back is good. Also a balance of adult and multi-generational audiences. Shows that are appropriate for kids and engaging for adults are the best.”