The Yale Dramatic Association’s Spring 2002 Experimental Production, “Breathe,” truly is just what it proclaims to be — an experiment. Just as with any veritable experiment, the outcome can never be definitively known, yet the experimentalist’s desire for uncharted revelation forgoes the risk of possible failure. This production is experimental in every sense of the word — an amorphous set in which the characters flow freely between dream and reality, from vignette to vignette, from interior monologue to mundane dialogue.
One gets the sense that the creator’s goal is perhaps a bit too narrow so as to allow for a universal understanding among his viewers. The feeling that one is missing out on a writer’s intent is, however, better than a failure to even identify this intent. There is no mistaking that Adam Chanzit ’03 has a clear agenda in the message he is trying to send his audience in his play — just what that message is, however, is where things start to get foggy.
Chanzit takes on a lot, and the outcome is specific. While watching the production, one gets the acute awareness that one is at Yale (and all its glorification of the intellect), while at the same time thinking to oneself, “um–I didn’t take that class.” It’s the feeling that the playwright is smarter than the audience that is troublesome.
The triumph of any great piece of dramatic work is getting the audience members to feel intellectually elevated along with the playwright, to feel as though they have, through their own mental acuity, reached a level of parallel insight and understanding that was indeed intended by the playwright himself, yet artfully disguised through the subtlest of allusions. Ideally, all the audience should leave a show marveling at their own intellect and ability to decipher a playwright’s ostensibly hidden agenda. The irony is, of course, that the playwright’s condescension is well-hidden, so as to make each audience member feel a personal attachment to the script.
“Breathe’s” condescension is, however, rather blatant. Allusions give way to direct references. The viewer is torn between slight feelings of superiority when the reference is understood, and anger at the directness of such references, which could have been detected just as easily in a less abrasive fashion. Furthermore, this fleeting gratification is soon replaced with anxiety about not understanding the rest of the references and “post-modernist” jargon, which the play is full of.
If “Breathe” lacks any of the components that make up a classically conventional script, which obviously is not its intention, then it makes up for this lack in its rendering on stage. The actors are all quite strong, with outstanding performances from Mike Wighton ’03, and Nicola Biden ’04. The blocking is extraordinary in its intricacy and intent on the part of the director, as well as its execution on the parts of the actors. In an amorphous world where the lines between simultaneously occurring and sometimes overlapping vignettes are forever blurred, the blocking of the actors shows a mature understanding and exciting interpretation of the script.
The mastery of physical interplay between dual characters is fascinating and well-placed throughout the show. The set designer too, Marisa Bass ’03, should be applauded for facilitating this vision so well. The floor design is particularly interesting and reflective of the play itself.
What really makes “Breathe” an outstanding performance is its smooth integration of live drama on stage, and prerecorded video clips. The show is obviously technically challenging; yet, it is seamless in its consistency — a clear triumph to be applauded by the technical crew.
Finally, the original sound designer, James Duruz ’03, brings a consistency to an otherwise fragmented play that allows for an amelioration of whatever lack of specificity is inherent in the play’s script. That is, the metaphorical association provided by the soundtrack between episodes in the play gives the audience something consistent with which to identify. The music is wonderful, and it gives the entire theater-going experience a magical quality.
“Breathe” should be, and absolutely can be, embraced for what it is: a fascinatingly, though sometimes frustratingly, unconventional piece that contains elements of greatness. Though it is difficult to predict just how any one audience member will receive it, its experimental disclaimer recognizes this. Just as any experiment sacrifices conventionality — and therefore conventional standards of criticism — it may take time to be accepted as great. Likewise, in its sacrifice of some standards of conventionality, a new transcendence is achieved through such a sacrifice. Both the effort and the outcome should be applauded.