Review: ‘Breathe Smoke’ at Orbiter 3

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Douglas Williams’ Breathe Smoke, a world premiere being presented by the Orbiter 3 Collective, tells the story of four people whose public lives and private lives are markedly different. It’s a fascinating premise, and director Maura Krause’s stylish production pulls viewers into a weird yet oddly comforting world.

Anita Holland and Jaime Maseda. Photo by Ginger Fox Photography.
Anita Holland and Jaime Maseda. Photo by Ginger Fox Photography.

Breathe Smoke tells the stories of two distinct yet intertwined couples. First we meet Dante and Ellis, co-workers in a placid, nondescript office. They spend their days dealing with accounting issues, but Dante knows the seemingly square Ellis’ secret: he spends his nights in mosh pits, thrashing away to dangerous underground rock bands. How does Dante know? Because she does it too.

He denies he’s part of that scene, even after she catches him at it; he’s determined to keep his work life and his private life separate. Soon the two are spending more and more time together, putting their disparate lifestyles on a collision course.

Next we meet Trevor, a musician and performance artist who is returning to this unnamed city for the first time in years. Performing under the name Rev Riley, Trevor became a star as his work evolved from playing guitar to mutilating himself onstage to becoming part of a living, breathing art exhibition. Now Trevor is ready to return to his Rev Riley persona for the first time in years to give a farewell performance. But it’s not clear whether he’s ready for it – or if his many devoted fans are ready for it either. (Dante is one of those fans, obsessed with videotaping Rev Riley’s performances; Ellis agrees to help her out with the recording, even though Ellis, perhaps seeking to stay ahead of the hipster curve, has started deriding Rev Riley as passé.)

Trevor is now renting a room in the home of his old friend and collaborator Fritzi. He wants her to be part of his performance, but she begs off, claiming “I don’t play music anymore.” (She seems to spend all her time drinking beer – and home-brewing it, too.) Yet when she retreats to her room, we see that she does still play music – using a violin and an array of volume and effect pedals to create a swirling, mesmerizing soundscape. Like the others, her complexities are hidden away.

All the characters have depth, but especially Ellis and Dante. They don’t make art like Trevor and Fritzi do; instead they define themselves by their devotion to their heroes. (The best scene shows Dante sitting at her desk listening to Trevor’s music on headphones, while we see what she pictures: Trevor, just a few feet away, putting on a one-man show just for her.) When Ellis and Dante suddenly get cut off from their lifestyle, they must deal with the ashes of whatever’s left. As one of the characters says, “Sucks being left with yourself, doesn’t it?”

Anita Holland’s bubbly performance as Dante conveys the joy at being part of a scene just for the love of it. And she interacts well with Jaime Maseda’s Ellis, who expresses the single-minded devotion of a hardcore fan. Makato Hirano’s Trevor is every inch the cautious, painstaking artist, while C. Kennedy plays Fritzi with a good-natured smile that hints at the pain within.

Watching this superb cast chip away at these characters is hypnotic. But Williams’ oblique dialogue and storytelling make the experience vexing at times. It takes a while to figure out what’s going on, and the characters are so wary of revealing too much to each other that they can feel maddeningly vague.

The script does make a few attempts to flesh out the characters, with mixed results. A scene revealing an unexpected bond between Dante and Fritzi is charming. But a coarse, off-putting scene revealing a sexual connection between two of the characters feels completely out of place.

Anita Holland and Makato Hirano. Photo by Ginger Fox Photography.
Anita Holland and Makato Hirano. Photo by Ginger Fox Photography.

Williams’ script has an intellectual richness that makes it worth paying attention to. And Krause’s direction deals effectively with the tension between the characters’ multiple personas. Although it reveals a lot about the characters, Breathe Smoke becomes frustrating to follow, and it keeps its characters so enigmatic that it’s difficult to empathize with them.

Sara Outing’s set design, full of found objects and raw, unfinished surfaces, suggests a series of lofts in a post-industrial urban landscape. Andrew Thompson’s lighting adds to the mysterious, shadowy mood. And Adriano Shaplin’s terrific sound design, an ever-fluctuating mixture of aggressive rock, electronica, dub, and sound collages, shows just why people like Dante and Ellis find this world so enticing.

Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

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Breathe Smoke plays through November 2, 2016, at Orbiter 3, performing at the Painted Bride Art Center – 230 Vine Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, purchase them online.