BWW Review: THE BREATHING HOLE at the Stratford Festival Offers Beautiful Design and Compelling Storytelling
Marking its world premiere, the Stratford Festival Commissioned production of Colleen Murphy's THE BREATHING HOLE is an incredible piece of theatre that is both groundbreaking and deeply moving. Directed by Reneltta Arluk, this production boasts a fantastic cast, beautiful design, and marvellous and endearing polar bear puppets. Tickets are hard to come by, but if you can see this production, you MUST.
This play spans 500 years, starting in 1534 and ending in the not-so-distant future. This daunting task is handled incredibly well by the playwright and the director. With the help of the Set Design by Daniela Masellis and Costume Design by Joanna Yu, along with dates being provided in the program, the timeline is never confusing to the audience.
This play tells many stories, but the one through-line is that of a special one-eared polar bear named Angu'juaq. He is a magical polar bear of sorts, as his life spans the entire 500 years. As we as an audience meet an assortment of people living in, or exploring the Arctic over an immense period of time, so does Angu'juaq.
First, we are introduced to an Inuit family going about their day-to-day life. They are incredibly grateful when the patriarch of their family returns home with food. He has hunted a polar bear and the family shows immense respect and gives thanks to the animal before they eat. It is clear that the family is starving and this polar bear has quite literally saved their lives. It should be noted that this company boasts the largest number of indigenous actors ever seen on stage in the same production here at the Stratford Festival. Three of the performers on stage are specifically Inuit actors. The authenticity in representation that this provides is incredibly important and enriches the production.
As the Inuit family consumes their meal, a member of their community, Huumittuq (played by Jani Lauzon) laments the emptiness in her heart having been left all alone after her husband and children tragically died many years ago. Soon, she discovers a Polar Bear cub floating alone on an ice drift. She adopts him as her son and names him Angu'juaq. When we see him next, he is full grown and helping the humans hunt seals through a breathing hole. Spoiler alert: he is better at it than they are!
When Angu'juaq (Puppetry by Bruce Hunter) does find himself and his mate living independently (300 years later), they run into famed explorer, Sir John Franklin Randy Hughson) and his men. The interactions between Franklin's men and the polar bears are fascinating to watch. Also fascinating are the interactions between Franklin's men and the Inuit they come upon. The language and cultural barrier causes some challenges in communication, but we as an audience are privy to what everyone is saying. This allows for lighthearted fun, but also an opportunity to reflect on the dangerous potential of people being misinterpreted and intentions being lost in translation-especially when weapons are involved. Luckily, these people find a way to communicate and they begin to discover what they can learn from one another.
As the story of the play continues through time and into the future, the environment becomes almost another character in the play. Oil is in the water, icecaps are melting, breathing holes (Angu'juaq's way of hunting for food) are disappearing, etc. Also disappearing is the level of respect and gratitude from humans for the world around them. This is particularly displayed in the final act, set in 2033 when the rich elite are having a party aboard a cruise ship in the Arctic and quite literally laughing at the suffering of Angu'juaq. This is hard to watch. It is incredibly upsetting and the characters are, in a sense, more two-dimensional than the ones who we met earlier in the play. This seems very intentional, almost as if to say 'this is where we are going and what we are becoming...but we aren't quite there yet, so let's change course.' It is a powerful message, especially after we as an audience has become so attached to the beautiful creature that is Angu'juaq.
With a sensational ensemble, compelling storytelling, and beautiful design, this play is something very special. You will laugh and cry and you will continue thinking about this theatre experience long after you leave your seat.
THE BREATHING HOLE continues in Repertory at the Studio Theatre until October 6th.
Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann