Darryl Hopkins and Steve O’Connell in Neptune Theatre’s presentation of Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland’s Between Breaths, on the mainstage to Nov. 10. (Stoo Metz)
Between Breaths is a powerful, poignant, spiritually uplifting story about Newfoundland’s “whale man” that will bring you to tears and leave you in awe.
Within just 75 minutes Newfoundland playwright Robert Chafe tunnels inside a marriage, a work relationship, a devastating illness and a passion to save the lives of the world’s largest, most majestic creatures.
Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland, created in 1995 by Chafe and director Jillian Keiley, is celebrated for a striking, storytelling style fusing simplicity with a dramatic use of sound and light to ignite imaginations.
The company specializes in “choral stage work” as previously seen at Neptune Theatre in Oil and Water and Colony of Unrequited Dreams. Between Breaths starts with six players – three musicians and three actors – sitting around an indented circle the colour of swirling ocean water.
Musicians and singers Brianna Gosse, Steve Maloney and Kevin Woolridge perform haunting melodies by The Once as three actors bring the story of Dr. Jon Lien alive.
Well-known in Newfoundland, Lien was an American-born scientist who left landlocked South Dakota with his bride to study seabirds and teach at Memorial University. Enthralled by the sea and its creatures, he started helping fishermen save whales entrapped in nets – 500 in Newfoundland and through the spread of his methods thousands worldwide.
He died in 2010 and Chafe interviewed his family to craft this robust, multi-layered portrait that starts shortly before Lien’s death and goes back to his first whale rescue in 1978.
Steve O’Connell gives an amazing, award-worthy performance as Lien taking him from a man struggling with mental and physical problems – which is painfully convincing – to the vigorous, driven, stubborn, ethical individual who could persuade fishermen to bring zodiacs right up to the sides of terrified, immobilized whales.
In this show you are in that boat as Lien wrestles his whale free – all this vividly present just with O’Connell bent over a chair moving ropes in a brilliant piece of stagecraft.
Newfoundland actor Berni Stapleton, in her Neptune debut, is strongly present as the sympathetic character of Lien’s loving, frustrated wife, left to tend the couple’s farm in Portugal Cove, and Darryl Hopkins is colourful and compelling as Lien’s cursing, chippy, amiable employee who is a former fisherman.
Characteristically Chafe’s script is poetic and rich in metaphor and meanings with Chafe’s decision to start at the end of Lien’s life when he has become as trapped within his body as the whales are within the nets.
The illness is bewildering and agonizing for both Lien and his wife and might trigger sadness and recognition in anyone who’s experienced this kind of tragic disintegration.
Ultimately Chafe’s themes are freedom, perseverance, integrity, joy and the triumph of the human spirit.
Directed for intensity and passion by Keiley — now artistic director at the National Arts Centre English Theatre — this production features Shawn Kerwin’s set and costume design with a horizontally-hanging, corrugated, crystal circle that amplifies the ghostly underwater beauty of Leigh Ann Vardy’s lighting design with sound design by technical director Brian Kenny and musical direction by Kellie Walsh.
Wednesday, Oct. 30, is Talk Back Night with the show’s creators.