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theatre review

Bruce Hunter, left, as the one-eared polar bear Angu’juaq and Jani Lauzon as Huumittuq in The Breathing Hole.Cylla von Tiedemann

Could The Breathing Hole be for Canada's Stratford Festival what War Horse was for Britain's National Theatre?

Colleen Murphy's sweeping new drama takes places over 499 years in Canada's North – but it has one character who is there from the first scene to the last: a one-eared polar bear named Angu'juaq (whose name means "the big one").

As designed by Daniela Masellis, Angu'juaq is certainly big – a giant white puppet that resembles an igloo almost as much as an animal. Inhabited by operator Bruce Hunter, however, the bear seems to fully live and breathe and becomes one of the most loveable characters to ever appear on a Stratford stage; he speaks a universal language through his movements – and is easily as endearing as War Horse's Joey, the horse puppet that helped that play gallop to stages around the world.

The Breathing Hole could travel well too – if the bleakness of what Angu'juaq observes in his magically long life doesn't stave off mass appeal.

Murphy's play begins in a year that, to Europeans, would be 1534, around the time of Jacques Cartier's first voyage – and takes place, as will the entire play, by a breathing hole in the ice in what is now the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut.

Angu'juaq first appears as a cub (a cameo by an even cuter hand puppet) adopted by a lonely widowed Inuit woman named Huumittuq (the formidable Jani Lauzon) after being found alone on an ice floe.

While the cub helps the woman cope with her grief for her lost family, other members of her community are more skeptical about co-existing with a polar bear – especially the hunter Nukilik (Johnny Issaluk), who has recently had a battle with an adult bear and barely emerged with his life.

Will Angu'juaq turn on his human mother and her neighbours when he grows up and finds a mate? Flash-forward to the year 1845: The bear is still alive and visiting the same hole in the ice where he caught seals as a young cub, when he comes across Sir John Franklin (Randy Hughson) and the crew of the ship Erebus, which has become stuck in the ice while on a search for the Northwest Passage.

Once two young hunters named Ajjiaq (Ujarneq Fleischer) and Panigayak (Jimmy Blais) also arrive on the scene, the encounter holds discoveries for the British, the Inuit and the bear.

The fate of Franklin and his shipmates will hardly be a surprise to any informed audience member – although the way it plays out is not short on shocks.

I don't believe it's too much of a spoiler, however, to say that Angu'juaq is still alive in The Breathing Hole's final scenes set in the 21st century – although whether he's well is another question.

In a not-so-distant future where warmer temperatures have attracted both oil drillers and eco-tourism operators to Nunavut, the bear encounters a new set of Arctic explorers – who seem dangerously adrift from the ideas of religion or community/country that anchored earlier ones.

It's tremendous to see the Stratford Festival throw its resources behind such an ambitious new work. Dozens of characters are played by 23 actors – including more Indigenous artists than have ever before been seen on a stage at the theatre company.

Director Reneltta Arluk's production straddles styles and eras seamlessly and she elicits memorable performances from her cast that will not be soon forgotten – especially those of stand-outs Issaluk, Lauzon, Fleischer, Hughson and Miali Buscemi playing Inuit women from the past and the future.

But, while I enjoyed Murphy's epic journey along the way, I felt let down by its final destination.

For most of the play, her scenes are refreshingly hard to pin down – and she never artificially raises the stakes. But once The Breathing Hole arrives into the future, the humanism with which the playwright imagined even the colonizers of the past is abandoned for a satirical tone that clashes and comes across as merely cynical.

Few Canadian playwrights are as brave in tackling bleak subject matter head-on as Murphy – whose plays include The December Man, about the Montreal Massacre; and Pig Girl, based on the horrors of serial killer Robert Pickton.

But, as many theatre artists have to-date, she's struggled to figure with how to tackle the looming horror of climate change – and, in the end, I felt manipulated rather than moved by the unnecessarily cruel narrative path she takes to make an obvious point.

I had to shake off the bad after-taste to recall how brilliantly Murphy explores big ideas earlier in The Breathing Hole – from the question of whether animals (and humans) have souls, to what it truly means to be carnivorous, to take life in order to sustain life.

Then, there's the dizzying thought that colonialism, rooted in the idea of progress, led time to change its very shape of time from a circle to a line – and that that line is beginning to point in a terrifying direction for all of us.

The Breathing Hole ( continues to Sept. 22.

Stratford production The Breathing Hole spans 500 years, starting from a polar bear’s birth in an Inuit community. Actor Miali Buscemi says she’s glad Indigenous characters are more frequently being portrayed by Indigenous people.

The Canadian Press