by Lynn on November 23, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

 At Factory Theatre, Mainspace, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Robert Chafe

Directed by Jillian Keiley

Original music composed and arranged by The Once

Musical direction by Kellie Walsh

Set and costumes by Shawn Kerwin

Lighting by Leigh Ann Vardy

Sound by Brian Kenny

Cast: Darryl Hopkins

Steve O’Connell

Berni Stapleton

Musicians: Brianna Gosse

Steve Maloney

Kevin Woolridge

The wonderful life of Dr. Jon Lien gets the Artistic Fraud vivid treatment revealing his heart, brains and fearlessness as well as the people around him who loved and revered him. 

The Story.  Dr. Jon Lien was raised in South Dakota on farms.  He loved wildlife and got a degree in animal behaviour and landed a job teaching at Memorial University in Newfoundland, studying small birds in 1978. By accident he got interested in whales.  One day a fisherman called him to help free a whale caught in his nets.  That was the beginning of Dr. Lien’s career as the Whale Man.  Over his career he freed 500 whales.

It was vital to free them as carefully as possible to save the whale and to save as much of the fisherman’s nets as possible—a ruined net could ruin the fisherman’s livelihood.

The Production. Shawn Kerwin has designed a circular set with a section in the middle that dips into another level. The band of three sit in chairs along the perimeter of the circle. There are other chairs for the other three cast members, also situated along the perimeter. The cast and band are on stage for the whole play either watching a scene or involved in it. The first sounds we hear are odd chirpy, high pitched sounds. Whales communicating. I smile.

Steve O’Connell as Dr. Jon Lien sits in a wheelchair in the centre of the circle, at the beginning of the play and really the end of his life. He can’t speak; is not very aware of what is happening around him; can’t move really. Even in this state he seems inquisitive. O’Connell, a robust man instills a joy of life and curiosity in this performance.

Jon Lien’s devoted wife Judy, played with quiet attention by Berni Stapleton, is always there; always ready with a “my darling” as her term of endearment for him. The last character is Wayne (Darryl Hopkins), Jon Lien’s long time friend and assistant in his various calls to save whales. As Wayne, Darryl Hopkins is matter of fact, direct, daring because Jon Lien made him so and caring.

Between Breaths is directed by Jillian Keiley with her usual vivid sense of imagery and  economic movement. Robert Chafe’s play progresses backwards from Jon’s dying days to when he is healthy and fit.  This is neatly suggested when Jon gets out of his wheelchair, walks around the circle of the set followed by Judy who gives him a walker, then a cane, and then he is mobile and vibrant.

Jon freeing the whales from nets etc. is masterfully depicted.  Jon and Wayne went out in an inflatable dinghy to get close to the trapped whale, parking the dinghy almost on the whale’s back. Jon would flip his head over the side and under the water to see how the whale was trapped and then cut away at the ropes with a knife. To suggest this Steve O’Connell as Jon lies across the seat of a wood chair and with a sound effect of splashing water, O’Connell puts his head down past the seat. Then he flips his arms under the chair fingering and flipping at the ropes tied around the legs of the chair until he has undone the ropes and ‘frees’ the whale.

The Once play music that is stirring and evocative. But I found it a bit of over-kill that both the band and the actors are all microphoned. It’s a small theatre; why the need of the amplification at all? And at times I think that the music and the talking are drowning each other out. Very distracting.

Robert Chafe’s text is poetic, brave, imaginative and certainly captures the intense curiosity of Jon Lien. There is a reference to an accident that might have aided his physical and mental decline and I thought it might have been with a whale, but in fact it was from a car accident….a case of the text leading in one direction but really going in another. Or perhaps the fault is mine in the assumption.

But the play and the production beautifully depicted the huge life Jon Lien and his important presence in Newfoundland.  Here was a man so curious, so fearless in his determination to save whales and help fishermen and it’s all there in this compelling production.

Factory Theatre presents an Artistic Fraud of Newfoundland production:

Began: Nov. 20, 2019.

Closes: Dec. 8, 2019.

Running Time: 90 minutes.


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