Duncan MacMillan’s Lungs is a rather interesting examination of the inner workings of the relationship between two young individuals and poses the question: am I a good enough person to be bringing a child into this world? It’s a blistering text that’s arguably become even more relevant now than when it originally premiered in 2011 due to its focus on childbirth, privilege, and the environment. Presented by Ottawa’s own Cart Before the Horse, director Paul Griffin puts local performers Megan Carty and Matt Hertendy through their paces with this intense and often visceral piece of theatre.
Story-wise Lungs follows a young couple, W and M, as they consider the cost of having a child. It’s not just the physical and emotional cost of the pregnancy, they posit, but also the toll on the earth: “‘I could fly to New York and back every day for seven years and still not leave a carbon footprint as big as if I have a child. Ten thousand tonnes of CO2. That’s the weight of the Eiffel Tower. I’d be giving birth to the Eiffel Tower.’”, says W and it’s not the first time the couple ruminates on how having a baby (or not) might affect their carbon footprint. We watch the slow burn of M and W’s relationship as they struggle to push through moments of miscommunication and existential frustration until their connection appears to disintegrate altogether. From these ashes, however, does a new phoenix rise and MacMillan shows us that sometimes you have to burn everything down before you can begin to rebuild.
To be honest, the staging of this show at the Knot Project Space leaves something to be desired. There’s not enough room in this intimate venue in its current configuration to allow the actors to use physical space as a way of creating distance and tension in a piece that’s so heavily dependent on the ever-changing stakes of the characters. Given that the performers are always in such close proximity, it feels as though the characters are constantly at each other’s throats with little to no relief throughout the entire 75-minute show. Now I realize that that is kind of the point, but to some degree this becomes a little tiring to watch on stage and, in turn, makes the ending slightly less convincing- i.e. it becomes difficult to believe that M and W go on to live a long and happy life, when we’ve just watched them spend most of the show disagreeing on and arguing over just about everything.
All that to say, the actors do a fine job with a text that comes laden with interruptions and overlapping dialogue. In this sense, it is clear that director Griffin has carefully orchestrated the pacing of the dialogue to give the piece that air of natural conversation. This is important because although the characters are constantly at odds with one another and in states of heightened emotion, the audience still needs to hear the words. And, despite what you may think, this is actually harder to achieve than it looks. There’s a great moment when Hertendy achieves this effect very clearly during M and W’s most vicious fight where M, trying to get a word in edgewise over the impassioned ranting of W, finally breaks down and releases all of his doubts, fears, and frustrations. In this section, Hertendy has to balance listening to his co-performer Carty; while making the appropriate scripted interjections; while also building his character’s emotional climax to a fever pitch. At this moment, it becomes clear that everyone in the audience is watching with bated breath and the tension in the room becomes palpable.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Carty’s performance as W as she’s responsible for driving a lot of the energy in this piece. She maneuvers W’s constant shifts with moderate success, sometimes nailing the rapid-fire nature of W’s mood swings while other times the emotional trajectory of the character feels a bit stifled. On the whole, Carty and Hertendy work well together and they play off of each other’s genuine feelings which certainly adds to the feeling of authenticity that this company is trying to convey on stage.
Lungs is a show that will leave you feeling emotionally expunged, if not a little exhausted. It’s a text that features two unapologetic (and to some degree unsympathetic) characters who are struggling with one of the most permanent decisions an individual can make in their lives. As a millennial, it is an easy story to relate to given that the majority of us are becoming parents later on in life, if at all, given the lack of job stability. As a production, the Cart Before the Horse team delivers some fierce performances that, while not without a few kinks, are worth seeing for the sheer intensity of it all.
by Duncan MacMillan
Presented by Cart Before the Horse
Directed by Paul Griffin
Performed by Megan Cary and Matt Hertendy
BYOV C: Knot Project Space