Between Breaths

By Robert Chafe
LSPU Hall, March 20-24 2024

Reviewed by Craig Francis Power

Inspired—if I can use that term—by a horrendous three and a half hour theatrical re-telling of Frankenstein I encountered in Vancouver fifteen years ago, for a not inconsiderable amount of time it was my contention that going to see a play ought to be punishment for certain of our society’s moral failings—infidelity, for instance. Not picking up after your dog. Not using your blinkers. Such judicial or governmental overreach—even to a civil liberties nut like myself—would be acceptable, and could result in nothing other than a decreased divorce rate, cleaner parks and city streets, and considerably less road rage. 

Having seen Artistic Fraud’s Between Breaths at Le Spew (The LSPU Hall) last night, I wonder though if I shouldn’t amend my previous vehemence regarding crime and punishment, as the show reveals just how immersive and transformative plays can be—the incredibly moving and rewarding collective experience of live theatre.

The show stars an utterly convincing Steve O’Connell as Dr. Jon Lien, AKA the Whale Man, an American animal behaviourist who moved with his wife Judy to Newfoundland from the U.S. in the 1960s to study seabirds, but ended up as an internationally renowned conservationist and activist whose passion for whales—or more appropriately, freeing them from fishing nets—has led to a measurable and far-reaching positive effect on their population, not to mention, most likely, their quality of life.

Ably backed up by the luminous Bernie Stapleton as Judy, and the hard-scrabble, rough-hewn charm of Darryl Hopkins’ Wayne (Jon’s friend and employee), the play’s narrative tells Dr. Lien’s story in reverse—starting with the man at the nadir of what seems a degenerative neurological condition that has led to a physical disability and wheelchair use, and working backward through time to describe not only the Whale Man’s slow physical and mental decline, but the personal toll his obsessions took on himself, his family, and those closest to him. 

Set off by the live musical performance of Andrew Laite, Josh Sandu, and Valmy Assam, the show’s score is at times ethereal, at times percussive, and only very occasionally competes with the action on stage, all the while drawing the audience down—almost like a kind of bathysphere—into the strange, eerily lit and murky underwater world of the whales, and, it would seem, the subconscious itself. 

I’ve been told that the mark of an actor’s true talent lies in their ability to remain responsive and alive and electric in the moment, rather than as a mechanical sort of automaton, spouting their lines in a kind of vacuum, and last night’s performance offered just such an insight. During an earth-shattering storm in which Dr. Lien and Wayne first meet, O’Connell and Hopkins are mid-conversation when from the audience, someone’s phone begins to ring. No doubt hearing it from on stage, O’Connell doesn’t miss a beat: “Are those church bells ringing?” he asks. The two men share a smile before going on with their scene.

It was a beautiful moment. And like Dr. Lien’s life and the show itself would seem to suggest, it’s these unplanned events, these deviations from the path, these missteps and mistakes, that reveal to us who we really are.

Craig Francis Power(he/him) is a visual artist and writer and soon to be actor(!) from St. John’s NL (Ktaqmkuk).