Review of One Big Breath, Yale Cabaret
The Yale Cabaret returns this week with its first show of the season. A devised piece scripted by third-year playwright Josh Wilder and directed by second-year playwright Jeremy O. Harris, One Big Breath takes a poetic approach to the dire situation of refugees from an unnamed war-torn country. Wilder and his collaborators—including a cast consisting of Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Patricia Fa’asua, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Jakeem Powell, Catherine María Rodríguez—create a play that feels part timeless folk-tale and part contemporary exposé. The different moods of the piece jar at times, but ultimately jell into a memorable Cabaret experience that leaves a lot of latitude for interpretation.
The piece is served well by a powerful and mesmerizing opening. Behind a curtain, Powell, Crowe-Legacy, Fa’asua and Fernandez McKenzie cast shadow figures that wrestle rhythmically with their plight: a decision to leave their homeland for the “other shore,” wearing flotation vests and roping themselves together for safety. In a stylized version of frogman attire, Rodríguez stalks through the audience with an illuminated diving mask, narrating the action and making eerie noises on a strange percussion instrument. In the course of the play, we will learn the fate of the four lovers who seek to escape death for something better.
Some scenes strike up an endearing comedy, as when Fa’asua plays a beach-goer who discovers Fernandez McKenzie washed up on the beach and attempts to communicate with her. Fa’asua speaks a stylized version of English that could easily catch on as a charming variation of our language, while Fernandez McKenzie wrestles with mimicking foreign sounds while communicating her distress at finding herself alone without her other escapees. Her choice at the scene’s close shreds the complacency of Fa’asua’s acceptance.
Later, Rodríguez plays a refugee called “Eet” who is introduced to a class by a demanding teacher (Fernandez McKenzie) and then barraged with questions by an enthusiastic TV interviewer (Fa’asua) while Powell—who has some great moves throughout the show, particularly in the opening segment—does an excited dance.
The play doesn’t do much to particularize the characters of the hopeful refugees, giving them a sort of collective consciousness that we can only intuit, and it renders their fates, whether in death or life, as an unwelcome alternative to whatever their previous existence was. A scene between Fernandez McKenzie, as a kind of shore patrol standing watch over two of the drowned refugees, and Crowe-Legacy as a photo journalist, doesn’t give us much to go on. The photographer is from Texas, but where in the world the shore is, is anyone’s guess.
Late in the show, a haunting score provides backdrop to a romantic acceptance of death, as a waltz for lovers willing to go down together rather than live under duress. Many of the show’s best effects come from the blending of lighting, sound, movement, voice to create a range of impressions for the viewer. It’s not about story so much as it’s about the way we turn traumatic events into media or into myth.
Near the close, Fernandez McKenzie rehearses the ways in which the human body fights off asphyxiation, or death by drowning. Her speech is rigorously true-to-life but also, in the way it allows for the mind’s ability to dream before the final lights out, opens up the possibility that the refugees aren’t yet drowned, but only dreaming.
Ultimately, One Big Breath, in its technical wizardry and evocative storytelling, is a good example of the strengths of theater at the Cab: inspired, probing, diverse, uneasy. The kind of theater we need these days.
One Big Breath
By Josh Wilder
Directed by Jeremy O. Harris
Produced by Al Heartley
Dramaturgs: Kari Olmon, Amauta Marston-Firmino; Choreographer: Shadi Ghaheri; Scenic Designer: Riw Rakkulchon; Assistant Scenic Designer: Stephanie Bahniuk; Costume Designer: Mika Eubanks; Lighting Designer: Evan Anderson; Sound Designer: Megumi Katayama; Stage Manager: Cate Worthington; Technical Director: LT Gourzong
Cast: Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Patricia Fa’asua, Francesca Fernandez McKenzie, Jakeem Powell, Catherine María Rodríguez
September 14-16, 2017
For my preview of the upcoming season of Cab 50, go here.