Breathing Corpses, on stage at Toronto’s Coal Mine Theatre, lacks coherence
I expected to love Coal Mine Theatre’s new production, Breathing Corpses. The production company came highly recommended. Unfortunately, although the cast was talented, the play was plagued by uneven pacing and a sense of disconnect from reality. This play tried so hard to be clever that it forgot to stay coherent, and many characters made decisions and expressed emotions that did not feel real or grounded in any way.
As its title suggests, Breathing Corpses is a drama built around death. The characters are clustered into three groups whose stories never intersect onstage. I respect playwright Laura Wade’s decision to let the audience do the work of figuring out the relationship between the groups of characters. However, because the scenes were never synthesized onstage, this play felt to me like it lacked cohesion.
Breathing Corpses is structured as a series of scenes, starting with a maid (played by Erin Humphry) who finds a corpse in a hotel room. In the next scene, a couple (played by Richard Sheridan Willis and Severn Thompson) and their employee (played by Simon Bracken) discover a corpse in a storage unit. The play then shifts to a younger couple (played by Kim Nelson and Benjamin Sutherland) who fight over their dog. There are many arguments and a lot of yelling, which is not quite the same thing as a lot of conflict.
My main issue with this play was that very few of the characters’ decisions felt justified or grounded. For example, when Amy the maid makes her awful discovery, she reacts by holding a calm one-way philosophical conversation with the corpse. Later, when Amy encounters a new hotel guest (played by Johnathan Sousa) who turns out to have a large knife, she does not react with any of the fear or even caution that we might reasonably expect. Amy isn’t otherwise an especially brave or stoic character—as far as I could tell, she is merely an ordinary woman who behaves in completely unrealistic ways.
My least favourite part of the night was the scene with the younger couple, Kate and Ben. Over the course of their scene, we learn that Kate physically and verbally abuses Ben, and they have a big, violent fight. While I appreciate the reversal of typical abuse gender-roles (women can be abusers too), I was surprised that this relationship was handled with so little tact. Both characters’ quick emotional changes were incomprehensible to me, and the magnitude of their fight over the dog felt forced and overblown. And why was Kate, the abusive woman with the out-of-control rage problem, the only Black character (in fact the only character played by a person of colour)?
Overall, I was surprisingly disappointed by Breathing Corpses. The actors did their best, and Sheridan Willis managed to wring some chuckles from the audience, but I simply could not suspend my disbelief enough to become invested in this play.
- Breathing Corpses is playing until Nov. 13, 2016, at Coal Mine Theatre (1454 Danforth Ave)
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 2 pm
- Tickets prices are $35 plus HST for regular tickets, which can be purchased online, and $25 for rush tickets (at the door, 30 mins before the performance, cash only)
- Content warning: violent depictions of abuse
Photo of Erin Humphry and Johnathan Sousa by BensoPhoto