Orbiter 3, the first producing playwrights collective in Philadelphia, has already established their aesthetic fingerprint in this city’s artistic sector. Their fourth production, BREATHE SMOKE by Douglas Williams, validates their brand as the most modern theater company in town.
The play tells of an experimental musician known for self-mutilation on stage prepares for his final show. Trevor, also known as Rev Riley (Makoto Hirano), has literally bled for the art and pushed his body to the limits in the past, but it’s rumored that his swan song will go to even more gruesome lengths. His friend Fritzi (C. Kennedy) has put her own artistic life behind her, or at least adapted it for different uses, and attempts to prevent Trevor from passing the point of no return. Meanwhile, his longtime fan and videographer Dante (Anita Holland) anticipates her chance to capture her favorite artist’s farewell. Dante tries to befriend her co-worker Ellis (Jaime Maseda) only to put their careers outside of the music scene in jeopardy. These are times of change, new beginnings and ends of eras.
Maseda and Holland shine in their roles as office workers by day, underground-rock enthusiasts by night. Their chemistry and charm will make you fall in love with their characters, even though Williams makes sure we still don’t fully understand them. Costume designer Rebecca Kanach drapes them in versatile outfits that are executive one moment, then with the removal of a blazer, is suddenly very hardcore.
Holland and Maseda embody these opposing qualities well; they are equally believable “moshing” to metal bands and answering the phone with “accounts payable?” They provide the show’s funniest moments; after seeing this show, you’ll never hear The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight” the same. The play would not be nearly as good without Maseda and Holland’s involvement.
Under the helm of director Maura Krause, BREATHE SMOKE is a sleek, cerebral piece of theater. Krause’s unfaltering vision elevates Williams’s ambiguous script into something precise and complete. Krause’s leadership, not just over BREATHE SMOKE but also Orbiter 3 itself, gifts the Philadelphia theater community with her—and Orbiter’s—clarity of focus and unique artistic brand.
The play is very much based in what design elements are popular right here, right now. Sara Outing’s set design lends itself to that feel, never feeling too meticulously planned yet calculated and versatile. The moody atmosphere of the play is aided by sound designer Adriano Shaplin’s TV drama-style music overlapping and enhancing the dialogue. Lighting designer Andrew Thompson rounds out the show’s somber look with a jolting mixture of traditional theater lighting and corporate fluorescents.
The conclusion of BREATHE SMOKE is open-ended, and is definitely yet another installment in the sometimes-hackneyed, growing genre of plays-about-performance-itself. However, Williams avoids the metatheatrics commonly associated with this type of play and goes for open-ended contemplation, an inquiry into painful transitions we all must undergo throughout life.
[Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine Street] October 25-November 2, 2016; orbiter3.org