By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The Bone Wars wasn’t always going to be theatre for grown-ups to take kids to. Far from it.
Punctuate! Theatre, after all, got its raison d’être, and exclamation point, tackling plays about the conflicted descendants of Nazis (East of Berlin) or Canadian soldiers traumatized in Afghanistan (This Is War) or The Suburban Motel Plays of George F. Walker that look at what the terminally dysfunctional and/or criminal get up to behind the flimsy walls of cheap motels.
But that was before playwright Matthew MacKenzie went on a field trip — to the Tyrell Museum in Drumheller. “We knew we wanted it to be ambitious!” he grins. The Bone Wars “was gonna be just for adults…. Originally I had the idea of making something like There Will Be Blood, which seems to me like one of the most Alberta movies ever made — but with dinosaurs! It just seemed like a hilarious thing to do.”
The playwright and Punctuate!’s can-do young producer Sheiny Satanove sat down last week to explain the change in plans for their dinosaur show. At the centre of The Bone Wars: The Curse of the Pathological Palaeontologists is the rivalry between legendary Victorian era dinosaur bone hunters Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh, played by Teatro La Quindicina leading ladies Davina Stewart and Leona Brausen. “The rivalry devolved and mutated, into something nutty!, and reached a cartoon-level absurdity by the end,” grins MacKenzie. The escalations of these so-called “bone wars” — bribery, theft, back-stabbing, public smears— bankrupted both wealthy fossil aces, and fuelled a great period of discovery.
There was no end to their competitiveness, MacKenzie discovered. One proposed having his brain officially preserved after death, in order to enable precise measurement of his nemesis’ brain when the time came, so the world would finally see who was smarter. His opposite number apparently didn’t sign off on the idea.
At 13 actors and two musicians, The Bone Wars: The Curse of the Pathological Palaeontologists, billed as “a time-travelling musical comedy for all ages,” is the biggest production ever from the enterprising indie theatre. Biggest, and possibly heaviest, pound for pound. Last week MacKenzie and Satanove earned a late-day beer with a day that included the unusual theatrical task of moving a custom-made steel triceratops ribcage through a stage door, thanks to a friend with a moving company. “Who’d build a theatre set out of steel?” Satanove laughs and rolls her eyes.
But then, why dinosaurs? “It’s Alberta!” declares Satanove, who found herself painting giant hoodoos last week.
Alberta is a veritable hotbed of elite dinosaurs, as MacKenzie had confirmed years ago prowling through the Natural History Museum in New York. There’s an Albertosaurus or two in that august institution (big head, skinny legs, “saw-edged flesh-slicing teeth,” as the museum website has it). And the Edmontosaurus, a relatively modest 7,500-pounder in his previous life, has a New York pied à terre there, too.
Back to the Tyrrell. MacKenzie and his fellow traveller, one of the cast members of The Bone Wars, were, he says, “the only people there without kids. And it was quite cool to see the dinosaurs through the kids’ eyes.” The attention span of the average four-year-old, taxed to the max by eating one bowl of Cheerios while sitting down, can easily encompass 15 triceratops skeletons, no problem. “We look around. The parents are exhausted; the kids are just going for it!”
Yes, kids love dinosaurs. The affection of kids for dinosaurs, even the homely ones, is one of the great mysterious bonds of modern times. And, as Satanove puts it, “it just seemed mean to do a show about dinosaurs that wasn’t accessible for kids!”
Affirmations are everywhere. When Satanove got picked up for a Passover dinner last week, her little cousin, in the single-digit age bracket, was glued to The Land Before Time in the car. She took this to be a sign.
MacKenzie grins. “Not only are kids interested, but they have this bizarre advanced knowledge.” They know their tyrannosauruses from their stegosauruses, their pterosaurs from their iguanodons.
The idea of The Bone Wars, says Satanove, was a show that’s kid-friendly but with a lot of jokes for grown-ups too. Which is the m.o. of the Pixar canon, as she points out. MacKenzie discovered the felicities of that double-optic with Tick, his kids’ play about youthful protest that was his exit project at Montreal’s National Theatre School. “I found out how much fun adults have watching kids laugh, and the reverse.”
Two of the youthful characters of Tick, including its spirited title heroine, find their way into The Bone Wars. And two of the actors in Chris Bullough’s cast, Elena Belyea and Philip Nozuka, are fresh from a Tick run in St. Catharines.
A trio of 11-year-olds on a canoe trip down the Red Deer River to the Badlands — prime dinosaur bone territory — take shelter in an abandoned mine. And they find themselves in the Wild West of Alberta’s bone rush, judging the celebrated palaeontologist rivalry.
Tick has its comic moments, says MacKenzie of his story of a girl who goes up against City Hall, armed with heroes like Che. The Bone Wars “has way more slapstick elements,” he says, reporting that he was inspired by an unstoppably funny cast in rehearsal, and director Bullough’s own “expert sense of physical comedy. “The climax is a big physical theatre number that’s right out of Bugs Bunny.” At a run-through last Saturday, “I laughed myself into a really bad headache.”
There’s music. Laura Raboud composed the songs. MacKenzie laughs, “it’s totally Bollywood; anything can happen: incantation, rhyming, actual numbers.” There’s a soundscape too, created live by a couple of inventive musicians, new to theatre, who were to be seen in a parking lot a few weeks ago, making a thunder machine out of a bicycle. “The buy-in has been complete with everyone.”
There’s choreography. “No CGI!” says Satanove. “We wanted to use the magic of theatre.” And MacKenzie is a believer in “the power of movement.” In his Bears, for example, choreographer Ainsley Hillyard devised the protagonist’s cross-mountain journey with a sort of dance chorus. This time, the answer to the question “how do we do the dinosaurs?” is choreographer Amber Borotsik.
The scale is rare enough in large theatre companies, and unheard of for indie operations like Punctuate!, as the playwright happily acknowledges. “Just to have 13 people all onstage pretty much all the time!” he beams. “When you don’t ever write for more than four actors! It’s super-challenging. Amazing!”
“We like massive,” grins Satanove, who shepherded Punctuate!’s six-play Suburban Motel series into a rep series in 2015. ”We’ve written so many grant applications!” she says permitting herself a sigh.
“It’s about creative art; it’s also about creating jobs in the industry.”
The Bone Wars: The Curse of the Pathological Palaeontologists
Written by: Matthew MacKenzie
Directed by: Chris Bullough
Starring: Davina Stewart, Leona Brausen, Murray Utas, Beth Graham
Where: The Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: through April 29
Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca