`Breath' Gasping For a Clue: Center Does Not Hold

THEATER

As Breath in the Wind

written by Jordan Valdina

directed by Michael Montoya

Starring Mimi Schultz and Neil Farnsworth

What do you call a production that credits the "entire world" with script writing? That considers an unexplained, never-again-mentioned seizure as a convenient way to end a scene? That includes a twenty-minute tangent in which the main character silently watches television and sleeps?

You could call it "experimental," and that's probably what Jordan Valdina, writer and producer of "As Breath in the Wind" intended. But you could also call it incoherent, superficial, and condescending. This play is little more than a string of random special effects and gimmicks, held together only by the consistently earnest performances of the cast.

There is no real plot. The main character, Angela (Mimi Schultz) is a bored nine-to-fiver with an active fantasy life. Her fantasies, of a grass skirted shaman (Jon Shanker), of a gourmet-loving CIA agent (Michael Montoya), of Angela's mother (Zoe Sarnat) in a space-suit and of a liaison between the delivery boy (Damien Reynolds) and Angela's gay coworker (Neil Farnsworth) make up the bulk of the play's activity. The rest of the play features Angela slumped lifelessly at her desk or in bed while a voice-over drones on about her unfulfilling life.

The confidence and complete absorption of the cast in their larger-than-life roles provide an energetic consistency to this production which is, unfortunately, lost among the ruckus. The voice-overs, the eerie new age music composed by Valdina and the entire scenes played offstage create an audial saftey-net which attempts to hold the production together.

Any sort of coherence, however, is immediately broken up by gimmicky effects. Fantasy sequences start and stop with no cohesive meaning. A televised news-program uses the same joke over and over again. A long, derivative variation on the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" video plays for ten minutes while the main character sleeps.

Who told Valdina twenty minutes of television is an effective dramatic device? Video of this extended duration encourages the audience to become either bored or intellectually passive, as if they were watching television on the couch at home. This shouldn't be the aim of experimental theater.

Only once in this production is video used in a thought-provoking manner. In one dream sequence, a filmstrip of a surreal childhood canoe trip is projected on the backdrop while the scene is played out on the stage. This creates the disturbingly effective visual juxtaposition which Valdina strives for throughout the play but rarely achieves.

Much else gets lost in the mayhem. Valdina has a talent for witty, understated dialogue. A series of scenes portraying Caleb and Angela thoughout the day in the office is subtly humorous, and gives the actors a chance to be human; for once, they aren't running around screaming. The same may be said for a scene in which Angela and her boss, Vanessa (Holly Kretschmer) sit at a lunch counter discussing the various attributes of okra vs. eggplant, under the adoring eye of their busboy, Javier (Spyros Poulios), who likes "both okra and eggplant." These brief, intelligent scenes make you wish there were more moments like them, and fewer in which characters stripped down into rainbow colored underwear and danced, or screamed incoherently about their lives, or dressed in lab coats impersonating scientists.

Ineffective as these attempts at innovation may be, the attempts at profundity are even more obnoxious. When Angela stands on her desk and declares in monotone "I'm tired of living like this, I know that we are more than this," and finishes her whiny pseudo-deep monologue while climbing on Caleb's shoulders, you can't help wincing. At another point in the production, the house lights come up and the cast sits and stares out into the audience. Even if this were a new dramatic idea, one would still resent it coming from this production. For a play this thematically weak to suddenly try to turn the tables on its audience, as if to challenge some complacency it condescendingly assumes the audience harbors, is offensive and smug.

This is theater at its most superficial. There is no coherent message or even mood behind Valdina's piece. It's a shame, because the efforts of the actors are obscured within this shallow fluff, as are Valdina's fine talent for dialogue and musical composition. Ultimately, Jordan Valdina's "As Breath in the Wind" is about as satisfying as watching MTV for an hour and a half. Something new happens every minute, and yes, each new effect attempts to be provocative and disturbing, but there's no common vision to unite all the fragments. At the end, little stands out in your mind as particularly remarkable, and you wonder why you wasted your time.