Love, joy & connection in the deeply moving, inspiring Between Breaths

Darryl Hopkins, Steve O’Connell & Berni Stapleton. Set & costume design by Shawn Kerwin. Lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy. Photo by Rich Blenkinsopp.

 

Factory Theatre continues the celebration of its 50th anniversary with a presentation of Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s production of Robert Chafe’s Between Breaths, directed by Jillian Keiley, assisted by Sharon King-Campbell, with music direction by Kellie Walsh. A biographical memory play, the reverse chronological storytelling highlights key moments during the final years of the life of Jon “The Whale Man” Lien, an animal behaviour professor from South Dakota who came to find a home in Newfoundland when he took a position at Memorial University. Eventually becoming known for his work saving over 500 whales caught up in fishing nets before dementia took his mobility, memory and ability to engage with the world as he once did, his relationship with the gentle giants of the sea reminds us of how interconnected are land and sea, man and animal.

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Darryl Hopkins & Steve O’Connell. Set & costume design by Shawn Kerwin. Lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy. Photo by Rich Blenkinsopp.

Otherworldly, yet grounded in time and place; intensely magical and real, Between Breaths takes us on a reverse trajectory from Jon Lien’s (Steve O’Connell) final days in a long-term care facility, to the frustrating and life-altering onset of his symptoms, to his emerging calling toward saving whales caught up in fishing nets, and salvaging the costly nets for the fishermen. Throughout, Jon is both supported and doubted by his beloved wife Judy (Berni Stapleton), and whale-saving friend and colleague Wayne (Darryl Hopkins), who are alternately exasperated with and taken up by his passion, drive and vision.

Beyond the conservation work, there is a kindred spirit connection between Jon and the whales; an inexplicable, ancestral calling that began the moment he viewed the Rock from the plane—his Viking DNA drawn to the rocky green and surrounding ocean. Present, passionate and proactive in an unwavering commitment to follow through with thoughts and impulses that eventually gel into a broader vision, Jon endeavours to save the gentle giants of the sea and the precious, costly nets that trapped them—contributing to both species conservation and the economic well-being of fishermen.

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Steve O’Connell & Berni Stapleton. Set & costume design by Shawn Kerwin. Lighting design by Leigh Ann Vardy. Photo by Rich Blenkinsopp.

Lovely, compelling work from the cast in this counter clockwise journey of a man, his work with the beautiful creatures he works to save, and his life and work partners. O’Connell gives a mercurial, profoundly poignant performance as Jon Lien. Charismatic, impulsive and at times infuriating in his single-mindedness, Jon has a sharp mind and enormous heart that can be a challenge for his family and colleagues to keep up with, but he always has a way of turning situations—and people—around. He is well-supported by Stapleton’s Judy, a loving wife and partner in life who holds the fort at home with their children, and continues to reach out in the face of his advanced dementia, even when it’s unclear that he can understand or respond. And by Hopkins’ gruff, salty Wayne; initially cynical and skeptical of Jon’s motives and vision—and wary of folks from away—Wayne is won over by Jon’s contagious optimism, passion and energy. And Wayne gradually comes to trust in himself as much as Jon does.

Accompanied by a live acoustic and vocal soundtrack performed by The Once (Brianna Gosse, Steve Maloney and Kevin Woolridge), and featuring beautiful, haunting whale song, the scenes are performed with minimal set pieces and props on Shawn Kerwin’s stunning blue stage, where the action plays out as if under water. The swirling blues and greens below the sparkling ripples reflecting the sun and sky above—and a C-shaped ramp wraps the playing area—evoking the unseen life beneath the surfaces of the ocean and the mind; the sights and sounds both mirror and complement the action.

Between Breaths reminds us of the strength and fragility of even the largest and most powerful of Earth’s creatures; and Jon Lien’s struggles with evolving dementia run parallel to the experience of a trapped whale—with all the notes of grief that accompany those moments when a living being comes face to face with its own mortality. Life, love, joy, memory and connection happen between those breaths. It is both heartbreaking and inspiring to witness.

Between Breaths continues in the Factory Theatre Mainspace until December 8; advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416- 504-9971. Go see this.

 

 

Love, marriage, friendship & infidelity in the intensely intimate, brilliantly executed Betrayal

Virgilia Griffith & Ryan Hollyman. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper rounds out its summer programming with its intensely intimate, brilliantly executed production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, directed by Andrea Donaldson and running at the Young Centre. A compelling look at intricate, overlapping webs of lies and deceit, it’s a fascinating look at the dynamics of love and infidelity between a husband and wife, and the husband’s best friend—and the subsequent impact on the marriage, the friendship and the affair itself. Told in reverse chronology, we start with a meeting two years after the affair has ended and go back in time to finish at the moment it was initiated.

When we first see Emma (Virgilia Griffith) and Robert (Ryan Hollyman), they’re meeting for a drink two years after the end of their affair. Robert, also married with children, is the best friend of Emma’s husband Robert (Jordan Pettle). What follows is a brief history of the relationship, shifting from this somewhat awkward meeting, to the break-up, to the revelation, and back through the pseudo-domestic bliss of afternoons spent at their furnished apartment oasis, to the moment the affair starts. We also see Robert and Jerry spending time together, including their favourite Italian restaurant, where they’re served by a waiter who clearly knows them as regulars (Paolo Santalucia, delightfully familiar with an edge of attitude). Questions of who knew what and when are revealed, concealed and lied about throughout, with selective candour emerging at pivotal moments—by chance or on purpose?

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Ryan Hollyman & Jordan Pettle. Set & costume design by Ken MacKenzie. Lighting design by Rebecca Picherack. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Stunning performances all around in this tight, sharply drawn Pinter favourite. The three main characters are very smart—both culturally and intellectually—and, coupled with the fact that they’re all professionals in the British arts and culture scene, the cool, polite and cerebral nature of their banter-filled interactions belies the fiery, devil-may-care, primal passions within—and the accompanying loneliness and ennui that lead them astray. Griffith brings a self-possessed air of confidence to independent and enigmatic Emma; the most pragmatic and level-headed of the affair pairing, Emma’s participation seems to come more from a place of loneliness than passion. Hollyman’s Jerry is an affable combination of wit, enthusiasm and cluelessness; a man with a “talent for finding talent”, Jerry pursues Emma with the lyrical passion of a university freshman—then gets upset when he learns that his best friend knows he’s been having it off with his wife. This hypocrisy extends to Robert, played with cool, poker-faced detachment by Jordan Pettle; with razor-like precision, Robert reveals little and conceals much—and has been having affairs himself, possibly out of a sense of marital ennui.

Starting in 1977 and ending in 1968, the brilliant reverse chronological structure not only acts as a compelling rewind on the relationships, but serves as hindsight wisdom. The finely-tuned energy and pacing of the performances create the feeling of a fire gone out at the beginning, to a dying ember, to a spark at the beginning—a spark that, one imagines, has emerged from the dying embers of the two marriages. It is a thrilling, guilty pleasure to witness; and the up-close-and-personal intimacy of the piece makes the audience feel complicit in the cheating. And the outstanding efforts of the design team transport us to both time and place with impeccable attention to detail and flare: the teak furniture and print designs of Ken MacKenzie’s set and costumes; the enjoyable mix of late 60s and 70s music for the pre-show, and gripping original soundtrack from sound designer/composer Richard Feren; and Rebecca Picherack’s sharp, focused and atmospheric lighting design.

Betrayal continues at the Young Centre until September 25, the run was extended due to popular demand; advance tickets available online, or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. This is an extremely popular production, with a packed house on a Tuesday night, so advance booking is strongly recommended.

ICYMI: Jordy Kieto interviews director Andrea Donaldson about the production in Intermission Magazine.

Department of Corrections: In the original posting, I neglected to mention actor Paolo Santalucia’ performance as the Waiter; this has been corrected.