Tuesday, November 26, 2019

between breaths

 Written by Robert Chafe

Directed by Jillian Keiley

Original Music Composed & Arranged by The Once

Factory presents an Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland production

Forty tons of muscle, fat, and bone, launched like a rocket. A Breach. No one's entirely sure of why they do it. I might be tempted to say it's nothing if not joy. 

Inspired by the true story of Jon Lien - known as the Whale Man - Between Breaths is a profoundly emotional memory play that sails through Lien's life and the dangerous, death-defying work of saving whales trapped in fishing nets off Newfoundland's coast. Over his long career, Lien saved over 500 whales and earned the respect of the island's fishermen, but his biggest fight came at the end of his life as dementia progressively conquered his body and mind. Featuring an evocative live score by Newfoundland's Juno-nominated The Once, Between Breaths is a beautiful and poignant play about the parts of ourselves we hold on to after everything else is gone. 

Tues - Fri PerformancesSat & Sun Performances
Regular Tickets: $40 Regular Tickets: $50
Senior Tickets: $30 Senior Tickets: $40
Student Tickets: $25 Student Tickets: $30
Artsworker Tickets: $25 Artsworker Tickets: $25
l-r - Steve O'Connell and Berni Stapleton

Coming in at just over an hour and ten minutes Between Breaths strikes one as a big varied idea struggling to lift itself out of a brief over simplified yet eloquently deployed script. Fine performances by Steve O’Connell, Berni Stapleton, and Darryl Hopkins, although beautifully accompanied by the haunting music of the  exquisite musical trio At Once, are frequently overwhelmed by the score. 

O’Connell, in the pivotal role of a kind of whale whisperer has powerful moments at the outset, but too often he has to compete with equally powerful rhythms that begin as elegant accents yet quickly become a little daunting and dirge like. 

The passion the central character feels for these mammoth creatures is found in abundance in O’Connell’s performance, and yet the overall mise-en-scene, combined with an information heavy script, does not allow the details of this complex man’s journey to shine through. There is a bit too much reductive narrative focus that suggests a large life that is  never fully shown. 

The main character’s late life struggle with illness is poignantly represented by both O’Connell and Stapleton, and yet the essential drive, fuelled by moments of  joy, passion and heartbreak are reduced to a frequently one note darkness that may not be giving full attention to a unique and impressive life at sea in one Canada’s many complex social, geographical, and cultural landscapes.

DirectorJillian Keiley’s direction effectively moves three characters around a beautifully designed yet somewhat tightened circular space (Shawn Kerwin, set & costumes). The set skilfully represents the swirling menace of the sea, and saving whales from life threatening confinement. But at times it all seems a touch  too confining, rendering the direction more a clever series of performance strategies rather than the expansive drama that is hinted at in exposition but never broadly realized. O’Connell’s intricately directed chair bound battles representing his career as a boat bound whale saviour are powerful and skillfully directed moments that might have moved outward toward other life moments in a more detailed script and within a more expansive playing space.

Ultimately, there are wonderful and engrossing moments throughout suggesting playwright Robert Chafe’s attempt to get at the intimacy of one man’s struggle with the sea and its particular creatures. But this is never fully achieved in a complex powerful way. A haunting yet continually repetitive musical and narrative tone looms throughout, creating too little poetic depth for a diverse epic story. The overall atmosphere sustains a halted sense that there are far more emotional variations to this story that have yet to be explored. 

Given the onstage inclusion of a trio of gifted musicians, Between Breaths has the ingredients for a longer, more ‘symphonic’ intimacy - replete with more developed and varied  ‘songs' and/or musical interludes - rather than the brief, somewhat unvaried emotional elements of what was clearly a great big life at sea. For all its promise to imagine that sea, its threatened underwater inhabitants, and the complex collaboration between human beings and ocean creatures to commingle in the throes of both living and dying, Between Breaths, although elegant and frequently heart wrenching, contains tremendous potential but not quite enough life. 


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