Breathe... or you can die!
nytheatre.com review by Ross Peabody
August 13, 2006
Sometimes it's the most obvious and simple observations in life that mean the most and make the most sense. The simple idea that if you don't breathe, then you will die, can be carried directly to the sublime conclusion that one should make the best of life and enjoy the smallest acts, like breathing.
Breathe...or you can die!, the new solo clown piece created and performed by Anna Zastrow, exhibits this in ways that are pure and innocent, while simultaneously being complex and very sophisticated and often brilliantly, hilariously dark. It is a simple little masterpiece.
Helda, Zastrow's clown alter ego, is aptly described as the "love child of Lucille Ball and Andy Kaufman." Over the course of a much-too-short hour, we follow cute, innocent, red-plastic-nosed, almost frumpy Helda from her home, where she has been waiting for a telephone call, to her first day at work, where, once assigned a cubicle as the associate assistant to the assistant of the executive associate's assistant (or something to that effect, the repeated gag somehow always works), she quickly learns that she has a knack for working the system and lands as a sex kitten driven by the pursuit of money: an affirmation-quoting, arrogant slave-driving corporate executive. As the show progresses, maniacal, black-plastic-nosed, bullwhip-wielding EXECUTIVE Helda experiences the inevitably necessary rapid rise to power, wealth, and fame ending in a full-blown breakdown, only to leave her understanding that, really, just being Helda is enough.
Zastrow is a skilled physical performer, and her pliable acrobatic face seems to be able to telegraph several emotions and intentions at once with pinpoint precision. Most of the time you want to love her with all of your heart, but you find that, not knowing whether to cry or to continue laughing, you're terrified of her, but, no, you really, really love her. Zastrow's skill also shines through in her physical narrative ability. Breathe... couldn't have more than two or three pages of written text, but Helda's journey is clearer and more affecting, than most "well-made" plays.
Although Zastrow's talent and charisma carry the show, Talaura Hams and John Block deserve much credit as supporting cast. They clean; they take abuse from capitalist, ladder-climbing Helda; they even sing and dance at her whim. Without them, Zastrow would have a very difficult time keeping the show moving.
There's not a moment or a movement or a look in this show that is lost. Zastrow plays with, teases, and jokes with the audience in ways that, for the first time that I've ever seen, are off-putting to no one. Being someone that loathes audience participation, I was even surprised to find myself glad (indeed!) to be pulled from the audience to help Helda stand in high heels, and enjoying (really!) being directly commanded to "remove and replace", one of her many office chores that she delegates ("Do it!"). Zastrow is easy to love and easy to feel safe with, and with that backing her up, she can get away with anything onstage. Luckily, everything she gets away with is crafted and performed with an intelligent, brilliant flair.
The only real complaint that I can voice about Breathe...or you can die! is that when I saw the show, I was sharing the audience with only nine other people. It's maddening that a show this wonderful can be overlooked because it doesn't have a wonky premise, or because people are scared of clowns, or whatever other excuse someone can make. Everyone should, right now, go do the right thing, buy a ticket, and treat yourself to a great time that embodies what the Fringe Festival is all about.