Static Apnea. Disorienting but Safe Theater, then Familiar but Unsafe Theater.

When “Static Apnea” began its theatrical run, live and indoors, a big selling point for me was that it would be safe: One theatergoer at a time  (mask required) would watch a single performer who was speaking behind a wall of glass. The whole show would last only nine minutes and two seconds – which is the longest time a woman has held her breath underwater. That’s the definition of static apnea – “The discipline of holding one’s breath underwater, motionless” – and the theme of the piece, as the theater company American Vicarious explains on the website where you reserve your (free) time slot:  “In 2020, breath has been taken away. By a virus. By a knee. By the uncertainty.”

It sounded worth attending.

There was just one problem: The show was being presented in a converted shipping container next door to Invisible Dog Art Center. That is in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. How would I get there?

“Static Apnea” opened on September 12th,  which was exactly six months after the governor shut down all of Broadway as a public safety measure in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.  I was not comfortable taking the subway, I don’t own a car, I couldn’t afford a cab; the best way to travel would be to walk. But would it be worth walking 90 minutes there and 90 minutes back for a nine minute play?

It took me nearly a month to decide that, yes, it would be worth it.  Within that month, Zoom fatigue had set in,  the infection rate in New York City had gone down, and things had loosened up.  I had started attending some live, in-person theater (“Different Shades of Comedy,” “Random Acts” ), which were closer to where I live, and also more lax (no glass wall.) The final push: They announced that “Static Apnea” will be closing on October 17th.

The long walk to the theater was something of a revelation and a relief, the inherent theater of New York City feeling restorative, especially while going from Manhattan to Brooklyn.  I took some photographs of the passing spectacle and Tweeted: No Broadway. No Halloween parade. An altered Thanksgiving parade. But the skyline still exists, and we can watch it while walking across the Manhattan bridge.

When I arrived at the theater, an assistant ushered me to the door of the container, where I at first experienced complete darkness, then wound my way around a bend to a hallway surrounded by blue light – and, at its end, a blonde woman half-lit from underneath, eerily. This was the performer Jenny Tibbels. I walked right up to her.
“Breathe with me?” she intoned in her microphone, behind the glass. “Notice your body rising and falling. Your heart-rate slowing. Muscles relaxing.”
I didn’t really notice that. I was still out of breath from the walk. But I did notice the subtle sounds of a heartbeat, of water, of eerie music. (Kudos to sound designer Andy Cohen)
The female world record-holder for static apnea, Tibbels told me, later drowned. Her son tried to save her. But her body remains lost at sea.
‘Do you know how long you can hold your breath? ….Would it be long enough to rescue someone you love?”
The lights dimmed on the performer, but suddenly the other end of the corridor was flooded with a blinding white light – emanating from what looked like an abstract sculpture, evoking some kind of religious symbol. It was so disorienting that I had trouble finding the exit (which, I learned later, was intentional.)
A triumph of design (besides Cohen, installation designer Troy Hourie and lighting designer Zach Weeks ), and the sort of outré theater that was so common pre-pandemic that, ironically, it almost felt for those nine minutes as if the world were back to normal.
The thought of immediately walking for another 90 minutes held less appeal than taking advantage of being in Brooklyn for the first time in six months and finding a good nearby restaurant – which I did: Yemen Café on Atlantic Avenue, which set up tables curbside, with plentiful and delicious food at a reasonable price. So, doubly worth the trip.

But then – the meal made me lethargic, and it would soon be dark. I recalled that a couple of friends had told me they had been taking the subway, there were few passengers and they were all masked; it was remarkably “clean” – that’s the word both used, improbably.
So for the first time in eight months, I took the subway. Maybe my friends haven’t traveled on a Saturday evening. The car I boarded was packed with people, and – for all the signs about masks – most of the people sitting close to me were bare-faced and breathing freely. I moved my seat when one became available – just as a maskless man entered the car and played the bongos while he told a loud rambling story, too long to hold my breath.

This too, I realize, is familiar New York theater, too much of it for me.

Author: New York Theaterh

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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