DESKTOP
TABLET (max. 1024px)
MOBILE (max. 640px)
Return to Top
Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

SCRUTINY | Between Breaths Is Ambitious But Flawed

By Paula Citron on November 22, 2019

With a splendid lead performance and believable, yet simple staging, Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland and Factory Theatre’s co-production of Between Breaths nonetheless has its issues while telling a worthwhile story.

Between Breaths
Between Breaths, Pictured (L to R): Darryl Hopkins, Steve O’Connell, Berni Stapleton; Set & Costume Design by Shawn Kerwin, Lighting Design by Leigh Ann Vardy (Photo : Rich Blenkinsopp)

Factory Theatre & Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland/Between Breaths, written by Robert Chafe, directed by Jillian Keiley, Factory Mainspace, Nov. 20 to Dec. 8. Tickets available at factorytheatre.ca.

While there is much to admire in Between Breaths (2018), things are not perfect. Nonetheless, an imperfect production from Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland is still a heady experience.

Artistic Fraud is one of Canada’s most esteemed theatre companies. Its leadership is Canadian theatre royalty. Playwright Robert Chafe is a Governor General’s award winner, while director Jillian Keiley received the Siminovitch Prize. Keiley is also the current head of Ottawa’s National Arts Centre English Theatre. Artistic Fraud is known for its original plays and compelling subject matter, and Between Breaths was inspired by a genuine Newfoundland hero.

American-born Dr. Jon Lien, who passed away in 2010, was an animal behaviourist who was known as “the whale man”. A professor at St. John’s Memorial University, his main field of study was small marine birds, but he got side-tracked into whales in 1978 when he was called upon to rescue one of the giant mammals caught in a fishing net. Over time, Lien pioneered methods to free whales while doing the least amount of damage to the nets. To a fisher, a tangled net meant the loss of $8,000 worth of equipment, as well as the end of the fishing season and his livelihood.

Chafe’s play moves backwards in time. We first see Lien (Steve O’Connell) confined to a wheelchair in a nursing home, unable to express himself and imprisoned in his own body. As the play progresses, the larger than life Lien emerges as a force of nature who bulldozes his way through all manner of obstacles in pursuit of trapped whales.

Apparently, over five hundred whales found freedom due to Lien’s passionate endeavours, and he was revered by both fishers and environmentalists alike.

Between Breaths
Between Breaths; Pictured (L to R): Darryl Hopkins, Steve O’Connell; Set & Costume Design by Shawn Kerwin; Lighting Design by Leigh Ann Vardy (Photo : Ritche Perez)

The play’s title comes from an observation that Lien documented in his research. Trapped whales dive deeper into the sea between breaths in an attempt to free themselves. As Chafe said in an interview, Lien keeps diving deeper into his past, between breaths, throughout the play. We also meet Lien’s loving wife Judy (Berni Stapleton) and his chief assistant and former whaler Wayne Ledwell (Darryl Hopkins).

In a Keiley-directed play, we expect clever visual images, and we do get them in Between Breaths. For example, we know we are going backwards in time as actor O’Connell walks in a circle travelling from a wheelchair, to a walker, to a cane. The whale rescue is done with two chairs to represent a boat. A tiller is placed on one seat, manned by Wayne, while Lien bends his body over the other chair, and in this upside down position, he gives the illusion that he is reaching into the water to cut the net, shouting instructions to Wayne to move closer, or move sideways etc. The net is depicted by a rope that Lien manoeuvres. It is an astonishing image because it is so believable, yet so simple.

Between Breaths boasts an original live score composed by the award-winning Newfoundland roots/folk band The Once, and despite the beautiful, haunting music, it is a problem. The excellent musicians (Brianna Gosse, Steve Maloney and Kevin Woolridge), using a guitar, harmonica and their voices, vocalise their way through the wordless cinematic score that mimics, in part, the ups and downs of whale music itself.

Because the musicians have microphones, the actors also have mics, presumably to be heard over the music, which makes Between Breaths a very noisy production. Given Lien’s nature as a short-tempered, impassioned, shouting man, many scenes of high dudgeon are simply deafening. Also, at several times in the play, the characters are speaking over one another, while the live music swells to a crescendo, inundating the audience with a wall of sound. What would it be like if neither the musicians nor the actors were miked?

Between Breaths
Between Breaths; Pictured (back row, L to R): Kevin Woolridge, Steve Maloney, Brianna Gosse; Pictured (Front, L to R): Steve O’Connell, Berni Stapleton; Set & Costume Design by Shawn Kerwin, Lighting Design by Leigh Ann Vardy (Photo : Ritche Perez)

There are also irritations in the script. Chafe may have tried to mimic Judy Lien’s speech pattern, but her constant use of “my darling” started to sound like a broken record. As well, there are a lot of tells, not shows, as Chafe tries to get out as much information about the Liens and Wayne as he can. As a result, a lot of the text sounds contrived. The best scenes are those of action, like the actual whale rescue, or arguments between husband and wife as Judy tries to be the voice of reason. The vignettes where Lien is in his memory also have strong resonance.

O’Connell, who seems to be suffering from a cough, nonetheless, gives a splendid performance as the over-the-top Lien, capturing the man’s obsession about whales. It is a performance that wears his heart on his sleeve. Stapleton makes Judy as feisty as she can, given the limits of being in her husband’s wake. I had trouble with Hopkins’ accent for Wayne, which obscures his words, but he does convey his character’s wry sense of humour.

Shawn Kerwin’s clever set of a blue-green curved ramp surrounding a plateau evokes a sea wave, while a large overhead, florescent disc symbolizes the whales. Brian Kenny’s sound design is a marvellous mix of seascape, bird calls, and whale music, and is perfectly grafted to the script for effect. Leigh Ann Vardy has provided the atmospheric lighting.

In the final analysis, Between Breaths does bring the marvellous life of Dr. Jon Lien to new audiences, and it is important that we know about him. Perhaps, however, the Newfoundlanders who developed the script are a little too close to the material and so tried to cram in too much detail, rendering Between Breaths ambitious but flawed.

There is a wonderful Lien idea in Between Breaths that should be noted. We have all seen pictures of whales hurling their gigantic bodies vertically into the air, which Lien noticed they did once they were finally freed. He pronounced that the whales’ behaviour denoted joy. The thought of a joyful whale, in a time when the species is headed for extinction, is a joyful thought indeed.

#LUDWIGVAN

Want more updates on classical music and opera news and reviews? Follow us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter for all the latest.

Follow me

Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
Follow me
Follow me

Paula Citron

Paula Citron is a Toronto-based freelance arts journalist and broadcaster who hosts her own website, paulacitron.ca. For over 25 years, she was senior dance writer for The Globe and Mail, associate editor of Opera Canada magazine, arts reviewer for Classical 96.3 FM, and dance previews contributor to Toronto Life magazine. She has been a guest lecturer for various cultural groups and universities, particularly on the role of the critic/reviewer, and has been a panellist on COC podcasts. Before assuming a full-time journalism career, Ms. Citron was a member of the drama department of the Claude Watson School for the Arts.
Paula Citron
Follow me
Share this article
lv_toronto_banner_high_590x300
comments powered by Disqus

Ludwig Van Toronto

LEBRECHT LISTENS | Rachmaninov At His Most Conversational

By Norman Lebrecht on August 28, 2020

The arrival of an altogether astonishing album has made me break my solemn (and unrealistic) pledge to review only neglected composers during the COVID pandemic.
Read the full story Comments
Share this article
lv_toronto_banner_high_590x300

LEBRECHT LISTENS | A Cure For A Month Without Weinberg

By Norman Lebrecht on August 21, 2020

Weinberg's poignant meditations on Jewish themes are played with big-toned empathy by cellist Raphael Wallfisch in this CPO recording.
Read the full story Comments
Share this article

SCRUTINY| Live Theatre Returns With A Brilliant Performance of ‘Alphonse’ In Dufferin Grove Park

By Paula Citron on August 28, 2020

Kaleb Alexander is brilliant in Wajdi Mouawad's 'Alphonse' - the first live theatre show in Toronto since the COVID lockdown.
Read the full story Comments
Share this article
lv_toronto_banner_low_590x300
lv_toronto_ssb_atf_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_high_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_mid_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_low_300x300
lv_toronto_tsb_high_300x700
lv_toronto_tsb_low_300x700
lv_toronto_ssb_atf_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_high_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_mid_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_low_300x300
lv_toronto_tsb_high_300x700
lv_toronto_tsb_low_300x700

We have detected that you are using an adblocking plugin in your browser.

The revenue we earn by the advertisements is used to manage this website. Please whitelist our website in your adblocking plugin.