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Breathe on my palm,” says performance artist Tim Miller to a first-row Woolly Mammoth Theater patron, beginning the 90-minute monologue Naked Breath as if he required help with a magic trick. “Breathe on my heart,” he quietly urges someone else. And with that patron’s barely audible exhaling, the requests seem to take on an aura of theatrical ritual.
Other patrons are approached just as tenderly, sidled up to in a spirit of intimacy and communality until one solicitation—“Breathe on my dick”—explodes whatever ambience was developing and re-anchors the evening in burlesque. “An old theater superstition,” murmurs Miller as his audience laughs. His grin is conspiratorial, and on opening night he had plenty of co-conspirators.
What follows—after some unison inhaling and contemplation of what this act involves (“Breathe in a couple of molecules of Michelangelo…of Jesus…of Bill and Hillary”)—is an autobiographical narrative of the sort Miller’s been touring for more than a decade. In Sex/Love/Stories and Stretch Marks, he recounted war stories from the gay rights battle. In My Queer Body, he went on a psychosexual scavenger hunt. This time, he’s telling a pair of related stories of love, sex, and carpentry.
The first takes place in 1981, when Miller was a cocky 19-year-old construction worker in the East Village. Being “good with wood” had earlier helped him bond with his father, and now it was offering him a kinship with muscular men in orange vests. An expert at constructing lofts in tiny Manhattan studios (“I put Manhattan to bed”), he specialized in expensive woods. With comic brio, he tells of seducing a fellow worker against a freshly installed doorjamb while worrying that they’d stain its birch veneer when they climaxed. Later, an accident that cost him the tip of his finger led to the spilling of a different body fluid. In AIDS-aware hindsight, he sees the blood that bathed him and his lover John as a presaging of “this deluge” to come.
And indeed, the 11-years-later chronicle that wraps up the evening occupies an altogether altered landscape. John has, by 1992, succumbed to AIDS, as have more than a hundred of Miller’s friends. And as the performer tells of his lust-at-first-sight for a stranger named Andrew in an East Village that seems freshly packed with Indian restaurants, he’s clearly grown accustomed to the inevitable conversation about HIV status that either precedes or follows intimacy. “Fear is a virus, too,” he notes; one that makes every breath precious, including those he shares so deliberately with theater audiences.
Where Miller’s previous work has always been aimed at raising awareness and hackles in about equal measure, Naked Breath is remarkably unconfrontational. I suppose the evening—with its tactile nudity (a member of the audience gives the performer a ritualistic sponge bath), casually off-color language, and rampant homosex palaver—might enrage a homophobe who happened to stumble upon it. But the performer seems to know he’s preaching almost exclusively to the choir this time around. Where his previous shows took pains to reach out to hetero audiences, Breath seems to assume the crowd is in near-total agreement with its sentiments from the outset. This lends the evening a contemplative, rather than argumentative, air, which makes a nice change. But it so robs the proceedings of urgency that the performer ends up working considerably harder than he should. In the show’s early stages, he’s practically hyperventilating, which makes all his ecstatic talk about breath and breathing sound a trifle strange.
Considering the exalted spot he has occupied in the performance-art firmament since Jesse Helms’ minions fixed him in their sights (Miller is, remember, one of the de-funded “NEA Four”), the increasing looseness of his performing style is becoming troubling. Since Miller’s body has gotten tauter over the years, even if his body language hasn’t, only those who remember Stretch Marks as a work that benefited from fiercely disciplined movement, and My Queer Body as an evening that often verged on dance, are likely to miss those qualities this time around. Less tolerable, though, is the performer’s newfound tendency to swallow the tail end of phrases when he’s moving rapidly. During some especially breathless passages on opening night, he even threw away punch lines.
Fortunately, there were plenty more, since Miller’s deceptively casual, neatly aimed phrasing is still his strongest asset. Naked Breath‘s script is often propelled by what might be termed a wordplay of dissonance, in which similar sounds (“first caress/first arrest”) are juxtaposed to ironic effect. And Miller’s habit of concretizing abstract notions in frankly poetic ways is growing more effective with each new performance piece. When he uses a visual metaphor here to describe a splatting sound—“a handful of warm vanilla pudding thrown on the principal’s desk”—you have to marvel at his literary economy. Not everyone could wed such a sexually tactile image with the innocence of a schoolboy prank, and then make the resulting phrase appeal to four out of five senses.