‘A History of Breathing’ explores faith and trauma in a fantastical hellscape

What do you get when you cross a frog, a murderous soldier, and (maybe) god? This is the question that The McGill University Department of English Drama & Theatre Program ’s performance of  A History of Breathing attempts to answer. This outlandish play combines elements borrowed from creation myths and the post-apocalypse, two themes that appear fundamentally contradictory. While the premise is intriguing, A History of Breathing never seems to reach its potential, and the resolution fails to fully reconcile these themes. However, admirable work from the performers, as well as exceptionally creative set, costume, and lighting design shines through.

The play begins with an interpretation of a Indigenous creation myth: Toad (Oluchi Akinfenwa), Turtle (Cameron Leonard), and Muskrat (Kateryna Fylypchuk) sit on a boat, with no land in sight, waiting for a woman to fall from the sky. They bicker and bother each other, each of the actors committed to presenting the childlike curiosity of their characters.

The play shifts suddenly to a father and a daughter, also drifting along in a boat. The two of them bicker as well, primarily about inane subjects, but also dropping subtle hints as to what happened to this flooded, burning world, building a mysteriously lonely atmosphere. Maddy Corvino plays the daughter, and while her abilities as an actor shine through at certain, more restrained and emotional moments, the character’s near perpetual state of anger makes it difficult to relate to her. The father, played by Gabriela Ray, displays her acting chops, providing a calmer and more comforting presence to contrast the daughter’s fury.

After a while, a stray boat drifts along and its captain, played with captivating ambiguity by Cameron Leonard, offers the family some much needed nourishment in exchange for an oar. Is this man simply another survivor, or could he be god? The other boat, as well as the audience, is kept guessing, and this enigmatic newcomer provides a much needed change of pace.

Just before the end of the first act, the aforementioned murderous soldier is introduced along with his young, silent prodigy (Charlotte Gimlin). Arielle Shiri plays the soldier as an unpredictable allegory for the horrors of war, finally bringing a much needed sense of excitement to the story. Every word the soldier says takes on a sinister edge, making the soldier’s presence intimidating even if the script is not.

The costume design contributes greatly to the play’s dreary atmosphere. The father and daughter’s outfits suggest they were forced to escape with merely the clothes on their backs, while the captain curiously wears fishing attire, despite the apocalypse leaving everyone else entirely unprepared. Each of the animals’ attire is simple and charming, featuring a cap with frog’s eyes, a turtle shell, and a muskrat’s pelt, making it perfect for a creation myth. 

The first act featured creative set designs consisting of boats made to look like nondescript books, and lighting that conveyed the endlessness of the flooded territory. When the curtains opened at the beginning of the second act, the entire stage had changed: Instead of the minimalist combination of boats and lighting, the stage was populated with a massive, whimsically painted tree, a burning house, and  murals featuring demonic sheep. 

Unfortunately, the second act is nothing but a pretty face. While all the performances remain impressive and dynamic, the script itself becomes even more tangled in its own metaphors, unsure of whether it wants to be a commentary on violence, faith, or fatherhood, and promptly fails to deliver on all three. The creation myth aspect of the play contrasts with the murder and profanity of the rest of the production, which not only causes tonal whiplash between scenes, but becomes especially problematic when the two stories finally come together.

The play’s script might be disjointed at times, but every other element makes A History of Breathing more than worthwhile. The McGill Drama and Theatre Department proves that it can impress under any circumstances, and the amount of effort put into every scene left the audience breathless.

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