Review by Ross Peabody —
August 13, 2006

Sometimes it’s the most obvious and simple observations in life that mean the most and make the most sense. The simple idea that if you don’t breathe, then you will die, can be carried directly to the sublime conclusion that one should make the best of life and enjoy the smallest acts, like breathing.

Breathe... or you can die!, the new solo clown piece created and performed by Anna Zastrow, exhibits this in ways that are pure and innocent, while simultaneously being complex and very sophisticated and often brilliantly, hilariously dark. It is a simple little masterpiece.

Helda, Zastrow’s clown alter ego, is aptly described as the “love child of Lucille Ball and Andy Kaufman.” Over the course of a much-too-short hour, we follow cute, innocent, red-plastic-nosed, almost frumpy Helda from her home, where she has been waiting for a telephone call, to her first day at work, where, once assigned a cubicle as the associate assistant to the assistant of the executive associate's assistant (or something to that effect, the repeated gag somehow always works), she quickly learns that she has a knack for working the system and lands as a sex kitten driven by the pursuit of money: an affirmation-quoting, arrogant slave-driving corporate executive. As the show progresses, maniacal, black-plastic-nosed, bullwhip-wielding EXECUTIVE Helda experiences the inevitably necessary rapid rise to power, wealth, and fame ending in a full-blown breakdown, only to leave her understanding that, really, just being Helda is enough.

Zastrow is a skilled physical performer, and her pliable acrobatic face seems to be able to telegraph several emotions and intentions at once with pinpoint precision. Most of the time you want to love her with all of your heart, but you find that, not knowing whether to cry or to continue laughing, you're terrified of her, but, no, you really, really love her. Zastrow’s skill also shines through in her physical narrative ability. Breathe... couldn’t have more than two or three pages of written text, but Helda’s journey is clearer and more affecting, than most “well-made” plays.

Although Zastrow’s talent and charisma carry the show, Talaura Hams and John Block deserve much credit as supporting cast. They clean; they take abuse from capitalist, ladder-climbing Helda; they even sing and dance at her whim. Without them, Zastrow would have a very difficult time keeping the show moving.

There’s not a moment or a movement or a look in this show that is lost. Zastrow plays with, teases, and jokes with the audience in ways that, for the first time that I’ve ever seen, are off-putting to no one. Being someone that loathes audience participation, I was even surprised to find myself glad (indeed!) to be pulled from the audience to help Helda stand in high heels, and enjoying (really!) being directly commanded to “remove and replace”, one of her many office chores that she delegates (“Do it!”). Zastrow is easy to love and easy to feel safe with, and with that backing her up, she can get away with anything onstage. Luckily, everything she gets away with is crafted and performed with an intelligent, brilliant flair.

The only real complaint that I can voice about Breathe... or you can die! is that when I saw the show, I was sharing the audience with only nine other people. It’s maddening that a show this wonderful can be overlooked because it doesn’t have a wonky premise, or because people are scared of clowns, or whatever other excuse someone can make. Everyone should, right now, go do the right thing, buy a ticket, and treat yourself to a great time that embodies what the Fringe Festival is all about.


Review by Kerri Allen —
August 16, 2006

Anna Zastrow makes an adorable clown. Not the Bozo type, but the French cirque type. In her poignantly silly one-woman show Breathe... Or You Can Die!, the Swedish-bred performer lampoons relationship woes, corporate greed, and self-help mantras.

Clad in a bright blue dress, white tulle scarf, and plastic red nose, Zastrow becomes Helda, a character she developed while studying at the École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq in Paris. At first Helda is a shy, twitchy woman eagerly awaiting a lover’s phone call. Zastrow shows off her precise and subtle clowning technique; with her long blond hair pulled up into a mop on the crown of her head, she is earnest and endearing.

In the second scene, Helda gets a low-level job. She continually repeats the instruction to “remove and replace” labels on piles of paper. She is promoted to the next level, where she must stamp papers “smack-dab in the middle,” and finally works her way up to become a red-nailed, red-heeled CEO from hell. Her bright red nose, however, is replaced with a black one. The new maniacal mantra becomes “Be an executive or be executed!” Zastrow’s physicalizing here is less impressive, and it seems as though she is more concerned with decrying a life of corporate greed than highlighting her considerable performing talents. By the third scene, Helda is morally and emotionally drained, and she turns to self-help tapes to straighten herself out. The soothing voice of the instructor (John Block) turns sinister when he announces, “Breathe...or you can die!” An epiphany ensues, and Helda returns to her natural state of red-nosed nervousness.

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The Circus of Vices and Virtues 2003:
March 21–April 12, 2003 at the Brooklyn Lyceum
Act: “Pride” (aka Helda at the Office—The New Job)

EDITOR’S PICKS: By Jonathan Kalb, Hunter Online Theater Review ( All intelligent people craving a springtime dose of circus should head for Cirque Boom’s wonderful new “vices and virtues” piece . . . . This show, directed by Ruth Juliet Wikler, is a unique fusion of real ideas and big-top spectacle, marrying trapeze, rope dancing, tumbling, stilt-walking, and clowning with politically tinged satire in the spirit of the German Karl Valentin and the Russians Bim and Bom. The dead-on skit called “Pride,” performed by a fantastic young clown named Anna Zastrow, is alone worth the trip. Just GO.

Additional off-the-record comment by Mr. Kalb:
Anna Zastrow deserves an award for that performance as [Helda]. It was brilliant.... “JAAAACK” has now become a frequent expression around our house.

Paulanne Simmons, The Brooklyn Papers:
Inspired both by the work of the 16th-century Flemish artist Pieter Brueghel—who infused his paintings with allegorical, sometimes sinister, meaning—and the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the societal tensions that have followed, Cirque Boom artistic director Ruth Juliet Wikler has used the world of clowns, aerial artists, and acrobats for political satire and social commentary . . . . Two of the most successful segments are “Lust,” in which Melissa Riker has choreographed her own graceful performance on what Wikler calls an “aerial fabric loop,” and “Pride,” Zastrow’s hilarious portrayal of an aspiring corporate executive who turns from a timid clown into a virago with a whip.

Abby Ranger, Brooklyn Free Press:
In “Pride,” a clown called Helda (Anna Zastrow), starts as a meek, paper-pushing drone and evolves by increasingly absurd, funny stages into a rabid, whip-cracking workaholic.

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BRIC Studio’s Ample Sample
June 2004

Lori Ortiz,
In a hilarious performance, clown Anna Zastrow of Cirque Boom plays a bumbling ‘Associate Assistant’ who becomes a whip brandishing dominatrix when finally promoted.

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The Lysistrata Project
March 3, 2003 at BAM
“Anna Banana”

Go Brooklyn:
. . . Cirque Boom’s crafty clown Anna Banana stole the show. Using a strategically placed balloon pump, Banana’s on-stage construction of the menfolk’s air-filled members netted roars from the audience.