Are any two humans more intimately connected – spiritually, psychologically and physically – than a killer and his victim at the moment of death? Playwright Anton Piatigorsky’s Breath in Between, currently on at Crow’s Theatre, asks that provocative question – and that’s only the start of its perverse philosophizing. So, if you’re reading this review over your Cheerios, perhaps put them aside or come back once you’ve digested.
Breath in Between’s premise is not an implausible one in this disconnected day and alienated age. Roger (Kyle Gatehouse) has put an advertisement up on the Internet, a request, or an offer, to, essentially, stab to death anyone who would like to be stabbed to death. He phrases it more poetically than that in his posting, writing: “The best gifts are decadent and absurd.”
Two people respond to Roger’s plea – a man named Maxim; a woman named Julia – and are subsequently sliced open in his basement.
For some writers, those encounters might be the play; indeed, Big Plans – Jeremy Taylor’s recent cannibalistic comedy at Storefront Theatre – explored a similar situation through a darkly humorous lens.
It’s only the backstory in Breath in Between, however – a mysterious inquiry into the limits of intimacy. The focus, instead, is on the relationship between Roger and Amy (Julia Krauss), a woman he meets in a bar shortly after the – well, “murders” seems like the wrong word, but “assisted suicides” seems an insufficient descriptor.
As Roger and Amy begin to date, they struggle to truly connect. She’s an open book who considers pornography a suitable topic for small talk with strangers – but he can’t even get out of his head during sex.
It’s only when Amy reveals she knows Roger’s secret that the two really begin to see and to know each other. Donning a pair of clear plastic masks, they role-play as Maxim and Julia in an attempt to feel as close to each other as killer to killed.
Piatigorsky’s play, thankfully, is less than realistic. There are unseen interlocutors who interrogate the characters from offstage, hints that Roger and Amy are possessed by Maxim and Julia, and the late introduction of a third on-stage character who is equal parts creepy and comic.
I sank into the strange, surreal world of Breath in Between when I saw an earlier version of it at the SummerWorks Performance Festival five years ago directed by Brendan Healy. Healy’s production was deeply unsettling and left me pondering whether it is truly possible to know another human being.
Now, at Crow’s Theatre, Piatigorksy is staging the play himself – it’s his directorial debut, in fact – and I found it a lot harder to buy into his conceit this time around. The more overwrought bits of writing seemed emphasized, while some of the subtler shifts felt lost.
It’s not an unusual experience for a critic, and perhaps a fitting one here, to lose a connection to a play – revisit a script, find an earlier enthusiasm puzzling, and wonder, as Morrissey did: Has the world changed, or have I changed?
It may be that the ideas-and-horror atmosphere of Breath in Between is simply difficult to pull off, an ill-timed laugh or two easily breaking the spell. It’s a shame then that Shannon Lea Doyle’s set, a fake brick wall added into Crow’s Theatre’s new studio space, gives the impression Roger’s opening monologue is taking place at a stand-up club.
As the writer is the director here, it seems inaccurate to describe the production as miscast – but Gatehouse and Krauss are an attractive young pair, whose bodies are put on display by the production, lending a romantic comedy meet-cute feel to an initial encounter that only works if we think it is two damaged individuals finding each other.
Gatehouse depicts Roger as too sensitive for this world, while Krauss initially plays Amy as highly flirtatious. The attempt to make them relatable or attractive right off the bat only makes the proceedings feel more like a fantasy than the earlier version – which was a nightmare that shocked you when eventually you started to relate.
Both actors give much more compelling and complex performances when they don their masks and start channelling the dead.
Piatigorsky’s very up-close-and-personal staging makes it even harder to connect with them. Physical proximity does not correlate with an intimate connection between actors and audience – and, in this case, it also makes some bizarre stage business involving a transparent gelatin material less than effective.
On the whole, I think Piatigorsky is a lucky playwright to have had such great directors as Healy and Chris Abraham bring his work to the stage in the past. He’s not yet as good as selling his own work.
Breath in Between continues to March 11 (crowstheatre.com).Report Typo/Error