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.

 

 

Self-discovery & reconnecting with the land in the delightful, magical, thought-provoking There is No Word for Wilderness

Shaquille Pottinger, Lisa Hamalainen, Jack Comerford, Joe Recinos & Morgan Johnson. Costume design by Beatriz Arevalo. Mask design by Alexandra Simpson. Puppet design by Patricia Mader. Dress rehearsal photo by Producer Rebecca Ballarin.

 

Animacy Theatre Collective and Arts in the Parks present Lisa Hamalainen’s interdisciplinary, land-based theatrical nature walk There is No Word for Wilderness, directed by Alexandra Simpson and running at Earl Bales Park (4169 Bathurst St.), Picnic Area #5. Mask, puppetry and music combine in this delightful, magical and thought-provoking journey of self-discovery, inner healing and wisdom gained as a young woman ventures into the forest. With the help of some unexpected guides, she reconnects with the land and finds her true heart. The inclusive and informative post-performance Anishinaabe ceremony and teaching, facilitated by Shelba Deer, adds context and depth of understanding of the piece.

When a Young Woman (Lisa Hamalainen) finds herself stranded on a rural highway, she finds an unlikely guide in a talking Hare (Shaquille Pottinger, puppet designed by Patricia Mader)! As they make their way through the forest, they encounter other animal guides along the way—a wise Owl (Joe Recinos), a sly Fox (Morgan Johnson) and a drowsy Fish (Jack Comerford)—and a walk in the woods becomes a journey of self-discovery, inner healing, and reconnection with the land, air and water.

We are led from scene to scene by stage manager Zoë Ruth Fairless (who also plays the ukulele) and accompanied by composer Anders Azzopardi on trombone, making our way in a counter-clockwise direction on a circular path as we follow the Young Woman on her journey. As you walk between scenes, you become aware of the sights, sounds and smells of the forest: the crunch of the gravel path beneath your feet, the aroma of leaves and wood, the brilliance of green trees against a blue sky—and, later, crickets chirping as the light wanes and darkness falls upon the campfire circle.

Pottinger is a delight as Hare—our jovial guide and narrator—who is ready for his close-up; his reactions to unknown human trappings like cellphones and reception are a reminder that our machines are not as vital to our lives as we think they are; and are kind of silly, when you think about it. There’s more than meets the eye to Hamalainen’s fastidious, driven, professional Young Woman. While she’s caught in the rat race of a job she despises, she’s no soulless cog in the corporate machine; her compassion and love of nature make her open to this journey and the self-awareness and wisdom it brings.

Recinos brings a graceful majesty to the wise, enigmatic Owl; his words of wisdom are like a puzzle for the Young Woman to solve. There is no word for wilderness in his language—for him, home is wherever you are, where your heart is. Johnson combines woodland animal cuteness with an edgy trickster vibe as Fox. Don’t let her adorable appearance fool you; she’s a savvy, sly one—and sees more than just a fellow creature of the forest when she looks at Hare. Comerford does double duty, with two sharply drawn contrasting characters: Young Man, the Young Woman’s self-absorbed, hyper-ambitious jerk of a co-worker; and the joyful, curious and cheeky Fish. Magically able to move about on land for a time, Fish reminds us that our discarded plastic bottles, bags and trash create horrific, dangerous conditions for the creatures of the water, not to mention the water itself.

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Hare (manipulated and characterized by Shaquille Pottinger). Puppet design by Patricia Mader. Dress rehearsal photo by Producer Rebecca Ballarin.

The performance is both complimented and highlighted by the beautiful, imaginative puppet (Patricia Mader), mask (Alexandra Simpson) and costume (Beatriz Arevalo) designs—utilizing fabric, wood and recycled items. Azzopardi’s composition incorporates vocal and instrumental music to great effect; and we’re even invited to join in.

Following each performance, the audience is invited to stay seated around a campfire (back at the starting point) for Anishinaabe ceremony and teaching with Shelba Deer. Relating traditional beliefs, and spiritual and healing practices, Deer’s teaching offers a deeper understanding and context for the performance we’ve just witnessed; sharing the wisdom that—Indigenous or settler—we are all human beings walking this Earth, partaking of Mother Earth’s bounty. And each of us has a spirit and a heart—the awareness and acknowledgement of which will help us discover our true paths.

Like the lanterns we carry throughout this journey, we are all small points of light energy on the Earth. And even if you live in the city, standing on concrete, you’re still standing on the Earth—living, breathing, drinking and eating on this planet. We are not separate from the land; we are a part of it. So we’d better take good care.

There is No Word for Wilderness continues in Earl Bales Park on September 19-21, 24-26 and 28 at 6:00 p.m., with rain dates on Sept 22 and 29; admission is free. There will be an ASL interpreter present for Shelba Deer’s post-performance ceremony and teaching on Sept 26. Check out Animacy’s Facebook event for more info.

Directions: Earl Bales Park, Picnic Area #5. For travel directions (by car or TTC), scroll down on the show’s web page. Look out for the flagpole with the Canadian flag at the end—there will be Arts in the Parks canopy and banners to mark the spot.

All performances are relaxed performances (for more info on accessibility, relaxed performances and the ASL interpretation, scroll down on the show’s web page). Come dressed for cooler evening September temperatures and wear comfy walking shoes. Bug spray is also a good idea, especially along the forest trail; if you forget, show staff and volunteers have some to share.

Toronto Fringe: Drowning in a small town in the haunting, lyrical Mourning After the Night Before

Models Abby Gillam, Ryan Helgason & Lauren Helgason. Photo by Chloë Whitehorn.

 

Mad River Theatre takes us to a small town by the water as a family struggles to overcome tragedy in Chloë Whitehorn’s haunting, lyrical Mourning After the Night Before; directed by Heather Keith and running at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse.

Lucy (Mary Wall), Drew (Dave Martin) and their teenage daughter Pippa (Brianna Richer) have just arrived in a small town by the water to start a new life, their move assisted by local residents Everett (Jack Morton) and his guardian Fenwick (Loriel Medynski). Pippa is a troubled poet, surrendering the dark contents of her creative, intelligent mind onto paper. Lucy is feeling out of place in her own skin; and Drew, who feels so far away, just wants everyone to be okay. Everett is smitten with Pippa—and Lucy—and the attractions are mutual; and Fenwick’s just trying to keep it together as her adopted son, a reminder of the friend she loved, is on his way to manhood.

Nice work from the cast in this quiet, intimate, ethereal piece where everyday moments float by like leaves on water. Richer’s restless, introspective wild child is nicely balanced by a playful, creative spirit. Wall’s Lucy is part caged animal, part cougar on the hunt as she grapples with her identity as wife and mother and finds herself lacking. Martin’s Drew avoids the stereotypical frustrated, estranged husband; Drew is a hurt, gentle soul who genuinely cares and wants to help, but finds himself at a loss to do so. Morton’s Everett is an endearing combination of lusty youth, optimism and kindness as he navigates his way through the early stages of manhood. And Medynski brings a gentle wisdom to the frank, no-nonsense Fenwick, who’s dealing with both a past loss (Everett’s mother) and an impending loss of her own (Everett growing up).

I first saw an early, shorter version of the play at Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival in 2018; and was happy to see its evolution. It combines everyday, intimate moments with poetry, and word play and introspection; woven with images and perspectives of water, the characters float around, dive into and drown in their lives as they grasp and gasp for connection, identity and meaning. The water almost becomes a sixth character here. And the minimalist set, incorporating black cubes to denote separate spaces in the story, places a focus on the words and characters as they glide in and out of moments, memories and musings. The result is a heightened realism that is both atmospheric and lyrical.

It is ironic that the family’s retreat to the peace and quiet of a small town forces a level of discomfiting introspection as each tries to anchor themselves within themselves and the world—a not so peaceful or quiet endeavour.

The Mourning After the Night Before continues at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse until July 14; check the show page for exact dates/times and advance tickets.

Toronto Fringe: A unique, sensual, fierce contemporary theatre journey out on the water in Flooded

Top to bottom: Nicole Wilson, Hayden Finkelshtain, Melanie Leon & Duncan Rowe. Photo by Ara Glenn-Johanson.

 

NorthAmerica took us on a unique theatrical journey with its Toronto Fringe production of Flooded, conceived and directed by Ara Glenn-Johanson. Created in collaboration with the ensemble, Flooded takes you out into Toronto Harbour for an hour-long contemporary theatre experience aboard the Pirate Life ship (departing from Pirate Life’s home base at 333 Lakeshore East; foot of Parliament—look for the pirate flags).

With playful, primal and sensual performances from Hayden Finkelshtain, Melanie Leon, Duncan Rowe and Glenn-Johanson (replacing original cast member Nicole Wilson for the rest of the run), Flooded is a non-narrative show that uses physical theatre, movement, voice and made up language as the actors transform themselves into various creatures, women turning against the patriarchy, humans longing for physical contact as they struggle to embrace, and more. Haunting, poignant music (composed by Glenn-Johanson) features lyrics compiled from The Wreck (Adrienne Rich) and the 16th century Good Gossip’s Song (from the Chester Noah play).

Intense, funny, rhythmic and sensual, Flooded is a beautifully fierce, visceral, poetic trip—engaging the audience in one moment, and leaving us with our own thoughts the next.

Last night’s performance was sandwiched between two thunderstorms,* the second (which arrived about an hour after we docked) bringing torrential downpours of biblical proportions. The weather couldn’t have been better—a stark reminder that our current trajectory of climate change and global warming could very well bring a second global flood. And like the volatile weather brought relief to a week-long heat wave last night, there’s a sense of calm and safety following a dramatic, moving and mercurial ride on the water as the ship and its survivors find dry land after the storm.

With shouts to our Captain Kit and crew Gabriel.

Flooded continues at Pirate Life, with the ship departing every night of the festival at 7:00 p.m. except July 10. Due to the nature of show and the intimate space, advance booking is strongly recommended.

*Note on weather policy: A performance will only be cancelled if the weather will be extreme or dangerous on the water. If you’ve booked in advance and a performance is cancelled, you will be sent an email.