Between Breaths Was A Whale Of A Time

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I will admit, I am not much of a fan of Jillian Keiley’s recent projects.  The first few times I saw plays she had directed for the NAC I was awestruck by the creativity involved, but for the past few shows in which she has been credited as the director I have been a little underwhelmed. So luckily for me, Between Breaths was definitely one of Keiley’s stronger works.  This play by Robert Chafe was presented in such a simple, and beautiful way that none of the artistic choices took away from the absolutely moving story.

This is not the first time I have seen a show at the NAC present the passage of time in reverse, and I hope it is not the last. Between Breaths starts off at the end of scientist Jon Lien’s (Steve O’Connell) life and works backwards through time to showcase the highs and lows that led up to his last moments. This made for some fascinating parallels between the end of his life and the beginning of his career as “The Whale Man”. Although he started out helping whales trapped in fishing nets, by the end of his life he is the one trapped in his own body.

The music and sound effects enhanced these parallels, especially in the use of whale song. At the beginning of the play – at the end of Jon’s life – he is calling out incoherently at the same time as whale song is played. The sounds of the whales in distress mirror his own distress, and the swell of the music composed by The Once only adds to the overwhelming emotion of the moment. In fact, every time there was an emotionally difficult moment with the play, actors voices were raised and the music got louder as if to stress the audience into being able to emotionally identify with the scene on stage.

The set was simple in its design, and yet it was full of significance. The set was round as if to invoke a kind of “circle of life” motif as we watched the lives of the characters onstage. It was painted to look like the water, as this was such a big part of Jon’s life. Even when he was not on the water, it was always there. The other elements of the set played off the theme of being trapped. There were nets incorporated into the stage to be used as props in scenes that involved trapped whales. And there was what looked like a great big piece of ice hovering over the set to represent the first whales that Jon had seen trapped in the ice. The nets and the ice were constantly visible throughout the story as if to remind us that even though we could see Jon as he was in his past, in the end he was trapped in his own body just as the whales had been trapped.  The lighting complemented the set beautifully as the colours used complemented the watery appearance of the stage.  And it looked even more spectacular when the lights shone through the “ice” hovering above the set.

Other facets of the play that served as constant reminders of the situation were the props. There was no “backstage” to this performance as all the actors and musicians sat around the edges of the set, always visible. But the props were always visible too as they were set up around the stage in the same way as the actors’ chairs. In particular, the wheelchair, walker, and cane were always visible on stage. Even as the play moved towards the past, when Jon was standing upright and was not displaying any visible health problems, the constant presence of those props was a reminder of what we the audience had already seen and what was to come.

All in all, it was a good way to end what has been a strong English Theatre season.  Thank you to all of the wonderful artists who worked so hard to put on such fantastic shows.  I can’t wait to see what’s in store for the next theatre season!

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