The Breathing Hole: Stratford Festival presents a 500-year trip through Arctic life and its eventual devastation on the back of Angu’juaq the polar bear

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In a play, to have an audience connect emotionally with a puppet is no easy feat.

It has as much to do with the puppet’s design and the puppeteer’s ability to bring it to life as it does with the actors’ interactions with it on stage.

In playwright Colleen Murphy and director Reneltta Arluk’s Stratford Festival production of The Breathing Hole, the character of the giant polar bear, Angu’juaq, is portrayed by Bruce Hunter’s masterful embodiment and control of a life-size bear puppet.

Despite having no spoken lines, as one would expect from a bear, Angu’juaq’s every foot step, every dip of his head below the ice to catch a seal, his growls, his yelps, and his interactions with the other characters has one forgetting that Hunter is in control of it all.

From the time Jani Lauzon’s Huumittuq rescues the one-eared baby bear from an ice floe and dares to protect him from the hunters in her Inuit community to his last gasp of air before sinking below the oily black water 500 years later, the audience truly believes that Angu’juaq can live forever.

Were it not for the actions of the human characters, perhaps he would have.

But it was the actions of those characters that hammered home the point of Murphy’s cautionary tale about man’s effects on life in the Arctic in the wake of his endless pursuit of greatness and discovery.

Take Johnny Issaluk’s Nukilik, the patriarchal Inuit hunter who ends up driving Angu’juaq away because he cannot relinquish his role as top provider for his family.

Or the crew of HMS Erebus, led by Randy Hughson’s enlightening performance as Sir John Franklin, in their pursuit of finding the Northwest Passage and conquering the sea ice on behalf of the British Empire, only to end up killing and eating Angu’juaq’s mate, Panik – played by both Jami Lauzon and Deidre Gillard-Rowlings – in a desperate bid to survive the harsh conditions.

Or even Sarah Dodd’s Matson Day and Jim Cordington’s Shen Young, the founders of Ocean’s Adventures, who, in trying to establish a cruise line through the Arctic to give tourists a chance to see “real” wildlife and Arctic landscapes, put in motion the events that lead to Angu’juaq’s demise.

“There’s always something just beyond that next hill,” Franklin says before having a premonition of an oil platform standing over what remains of the Arctic ice more than 200 years later.

Although the play spans a period of 500 years –1534-2034 – geographically it is centred around one hole in the Arctic ice.

Known as a breathing hole, through which seals and other sea mammals come up for air, it’s used by Angu’juaq, Panik and the Inuit to hunt, it’s where explorers from HMS Erebus try to plant their flag and eventually dump their fallen shipmates, it’s where a zoologist and a biologist track the starving Angu’juaq only to be turned away by an oil company security guard, and, although the ice has long since melted and the breathing hole no longer exists, it’s the location in which the audience joins the cruise ship passengers as they celebrate New Year’s Eve with all of the belligerence and excess one would expect from the upper echelons of society.

While Murphy’s epic story in engaging in itself, it’s the costumes designs by Joanna Yu, Francesca Callow and Mary-Jo Carter Dodd, the mixture of natural and unnatural soundscapes by composer Carmen Braden, the beautiful minimalist sets designed by Daniela Masellis, and the sporadic use of Inuktitut dialogue between Inuit characters that has audience members believing they are on the ice with the characters onstage.

The Breathing Hole plays in repertory at the Studio Theatre until Sept. 22.

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