When a stranger you just met whips out a chef’s knife from under his pillow, it’s probably time to run, right?
These characters would say otherwise.
Coal Mine Theatre’s Breathing Corpses, written by Laura Wade and directed by David Ferry, drops you into a world where committing murder is the norm and suicide is a casual thing to talk about while a dead person lies beside you in a hotel room.
Coal Mine loves its challenges and this is certainly one of them. Breathing Corpses is completely irrational, yet it horrifies you for that very same reason. It makes public very private, disturbing moments and passes them off as nonchalant everyday occurrences. It makes us question the violence perpetrated, and how societal status and gender roles play a role in said violence. Coal Mine succeeds at playing up the unsettling nature of this twisted mystery.
Breathing Corpses is constructed as a series of scenes centred on characters who will inevitably die. These characters are all linked in the sense that one person’s death somehow leads to another’s. The show begins as somewhat of a puzzle, as audiences slowly piece together the characters’ connections to one another, but the mystery becomes more and more predictable as the show progresses.
The meaning behind the play's title is twofold. On the one hand, is the concept that death is certain and unavoidable. On the other hand, many of these characters are metaphorically dead inside – breathing, yet unhappy, or not living life as they hoped they would.
Arguably, the show’s main character is Amy (Erin Humphry), an Irish hotel maid who dubs herself “the angel of death.” The show opens and closes with her scenes, the first being a little rocky and poorly paced, her desensitized attitude borderline boring. But the final scene makes up for this, as Amy’s story closes the play in such an elusive manner that, just when you think your puzzle is complete, it dumps some pieces in your lap for the ride home.
Coal Mine’s cast makes the play look good with memorable acting chops, most notably in one particularly sickening scene between the angry and bitter entrepreneur Kate (Kim Nelson), and her punching-bag-of-a-boyfriend Ben (Benjamin Sutherland). The pair play out the scene with unparalleled energy and commitment.
The set design (by Steve Lucas) is both attractive and practical. Much of the set is on sliding panels that quickly and fluidly switch up the look of each location. The entire cast participates in each scene change by moving set pieces around while chanting the same words over and over again, as Sound Designer Verne Good’s hip-hop music blares in the background.
Under its creepy façade, this play ultimately represents a balancing act between fate and choice. It’s about beating the clock and the ways in which we choose to spend our days before we die – basically, the stuff no one wants to talk about.
Breathing Corpses runs at Coal Mine Theatre until Nov. 13. For more information, visit http://www.coalminetheatre.com/.