Theater Review: Breathe Smoke

Posted: November 1, 2016 in Threat Quality

(Broad Street Review does this thing where they’ll publish your review if it’s different enough from another review they ran, but they won’t tell you if they’re going to pay for it until after you’ve written it.  I am not *real* happy with this practice, but what else am I going to do, who knows.  Anyway, my review was second, but I wrote it, might as well run it somewhere.)

According to its description, Breathe Smoke, the fourth play from the Orbiter 3 producing playwrights collective, is about a controversial performance artist planning his final show, one that will “merge the boundaries between his art and his mortality.”  In 2016, the idea evokes David Bowie, whose Blackstar, was planned and recorded while the artist knew he was dying and released two days before his death, or Gord Downie, whose farewell tour with the Tragically Hip was planned when he was diagnosed with brain cancer.

In fact, it’s nothing so dramatic.  Performance artist Trevor (Makoto Hirano) — whose performance art character is called “Rev Reilly” — isn’t dying at all, he just doesn’t want to do performance art anymore, possibly because his fans don’t seem to appreciate him.  There’s a rumor that he means to commit suicide at his last show, and when he finds out about it, he cancels the show.  This is one half of the story in the show’s ninety-minute run time:  a performance artist has a conversation with his friend (“Fritzi”, played by C. W. Kennedy) about a show he means to perform, then he decides not to perform it.  

The other half of the play is about Ellis and Dante (Jaime Maseda and Anita Marie Holland, respectively), who work somewhere in Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable, and who like to go to mosh pits at metal shows in their spare time.  Eventually, Ellis’s boss sees him on video at a metal show, and fires him because of it.

The relative non-drama of the two respective storylines is the foundational trouble with Breathe Smoke; it seems to be about very little, and it’s hard to imagine caring about the little that it is about.  It’s got nothing particularly to do with mortality, and, while public and private personas are a part of the story, it doesn’t seem to be especially about them, or to have very much to say about them.

The play is billed as being the product of an “ensemble devising process,” and it’s always hard to be sure, without being privy to that process, who exactly is responsible for what: there’s no way to know which parts of the play were devised by the playwright (Douglas Williams) or the artistic director (Maura Krause), or the actors themselves, and that makes it difficult to assess the source of what seem like some baffling choices.

Makoto Hirano, for instance, has a tremendous physicality, but in Breathe Smoke is asked for about a cumulative minute of dance and movement; the rest is the kind of quiet, intimate conversational acting that is clearly not his forte.  He’s paired for these with C. W. Kennedy who has a robust resume of weird, theatrical roles; one of them in a role like this is confusing, but to squander both of them is incomprehensible.

For that matter, even if Kennedy and Hirano were the kind of actors with the quiet, mundane charisma that can sell the minutiae of a daily conversation, their scenes aren’t even that: they instead vacillate between trivialities about the backstory of Fritzi’s art-barn-boarding house or whatever it is, and banalities about Trevor’s thoughts on Art.  How does an ensemble-devised play, in which the roles and writing are created specifically for the actors who’re going to be performing it, so vastly misuse two tremendous talents?  It’d be strange enough if they’d just been miscast, but what kind of process ends with Hirano spending forty minutes sadly explaining that his fans don’t understand him, and thinks the best use of Kennedy is to have her sit and listen quietly?

The story between Ellis and Dante, tangential as it is to the Rev Reilly plot — so tangential in this case that it might as well belong in a different play — at least borders on the edge of interesting:  Maseda and Holland are wry and charming in their roles, and bring a much-needed energy to the piece, managing to make Ellis’ initial resistance to Dante’s overtures of friendship compelling.  This story is not much more than half of the show’s whole run time, though, and it’s padded out with scenes that don’t seem to have much to do with anything and, in fact, aren’t even clearly about the same characters.

(In one: Kennedy and Holland are two women dancing, and it’s eventually revealed that Kennedy’s character was in an accident caused by Holland’s; later, it’s revealed that this character is someone different from Fritzi, Kennedy’s other character.  Who is she?  How does she relate to this story? The answers are mysterious.  In a second, Kennedy and Maseda’s characters wash dishes while talking to each other as though they’re having sex – the dishwashing in this case is apparently a metaphor – is Maseda still playing Ellis?  Did he have sex with Fritzi, or with the woman who was in the accident?  Or with a third Kennedy character who was also wearing an identical red sweater?  The problem is that the effort in parsing these relationships out is wasted: it doesn’t actually matter.)

Sara Outing provides a richly-detailed, if uninspired set; Andrew Thompson provides a dynamic lighting design, and presumably the glaring overhead light that blinds the audience after certain transitions was done on purpose, however aggravating it might have been, making it potentially the boldest artistic choice in the show.  Adriano Shaplin’s sound design was adequate but unmemorable, which seems like a much more terrible sin in a play that’s nominally about music and performing artists.  It’s a wealth of highly-competent design, that goes a long way to lend an air of completeness to a production that feels at best underdone.

The marketing materials for Orbiter 3 describe Breathe Smoke as “is more narrative mixtape than play”, and while it’s not always fair to compare a play to its marketing materials, it’s worth pointing out how this fails to describe both Breathe Smoke and mixtapes:  mixtapes are made from pieces of music that are already polished to completion, stripped of their original context and then re-contextualized in such a way that their juxtaposition illustrates a theme or a mood or an idea or a moment in time.  It’s a good enough metaphor for devised theater, which often uses long, long rehearsal processes and iterative improvisational techniques to polish many short scenes that are then edited down into a carefully-calculated jumble of contrasting ideas and viewpoints, whose value lies in their tension.

But there’s no tension to the ideas here at all, there’s barely even any manufactured drama.  At something like one of the emotional climaxes, Trevor tries to explain the nature of his opaque performance artistry, and why he had to hurt and scar himself to do it:  it’s about pushing his body to the limits for the music.

Well what does that mean?  Is he like Frank Zappa, building a musical instrument out of a bicycle in order to test the limits of what we think “music” is?  Or like Isaac Newton, sticking a knitting needle in his eye to forcible change the way he sees in order to understand optics?  Is his self-destruction reckless, a kind of liberatory nihilism?  Or is it the carefully-managed exhilaration of the mosh pit?

The language around the play wants us to think that this is a thoughtful ambiguity — that the questions here are more important than the answers.  But these aren’t questions that are caused by conflicting viewpoints — they’re questions caused by a lack of anything like a developed viewpoint.  Regular playwriting is usually an Apollonian process, something that sinks or swims based on the value of a single, rigid perspective; where devised theater often serves is by bringing in a Dionysian quality, a chaos of viewpoints and dynamic tension. 

What this feels like, and again it’s always very difficult to say for sure without knowing the process, but what it feels like is a half a play that the ensemble tried to devise its way through: an incomplete structure that they tried to patch up with whatever experimental writing process they were interested in.  The result is a narrative that, because it was half-devised, lacks anything like the singular clarity of a play and, because it was half-written, also lacks the dynamic tension of a devised work.

Mark Cofta wrote about this one for the Broad Street Review, and he doesn’t exactly rave about it; his response was at best tepid.  The two things about this are that 1) Cofta doesn’t have as much space to go into his problems as I do here, and 2) Cofta is committed to giving every production the benefit of the doubt.  I respect that, I think that is a perfectly fine way to approach criticism if that’s what you want, but I think it makes him generous in many cases, and certainly in this case, to a fault.

Breathe Smoke is astonishingly weak work from a company that shows so much artistic promise.

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