O those dancing bones and the story of Alberta: The Bone Wars, a review

The Bone Wars or The Curse of the Pathological Palaeontologists, Punctuate! Theatre. Photo by Mat Simpson.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

There’s something pretty wacky and exhilarating about catching a musical comedy about warring palaeontologists any time — but especially on Earth Day and the March For Science weekend. Take it as a sign of global heartwarming.

But then, we’re in Alberta. And the brontosauran-size cast (13 strong) of The Bone Wars: The Curse of the Pathological Palaeontologists are singing and dancing on the “greatest dinosaur graveyard in the world.”

Science nerds and showbiz come together and kick up their heels to a backdrop of hoodoos in this new Matthew MacKenzie comedy, designed for both kids and grown-ups. The Bone Wars premieres in a startlingly large and appealingly kooky production directed by Chris Bullough for the Edmonton indie company Punctuate! Theatre.

It is, not unexpectedly, a comedy with questions to ask. MacKenzie’s 2015 Bears is, to my knowledge, the repertoire’s only “multi-disciplinary comedy about the Northern Gateway Pipeline.” His macabre black comedy Bust, which debuted at Theatre Network earlier this endless winter, was set in Fort McMurray, against the backdrop of the fire and the declining fortunes of that oil boom town.

This time, the playwright’s muse has been oiled, you might say, by the distinctively weird history of Alberta — and specifically the history that put the fossil into fossil fuel in the first place. Still, the sight of Davina Stewart and Leona Brausen in top hats and tail coats duking it out riotously as the two legendary Victorian dinosaur bone hunters Edward Cope and Othniel Marsh, claims new territory in theatrical unexpectedness. And they are very funny; vaudeville comes to palaeontology. Finally.

The Bone Wars or The Curse of the Pathological Palaeontologists, Punctuate! Theatre. Photo by Mat Simpson

These Victorian scientists were former friends turned arch-rivals. Their insatiable one-upmanship, pursued to absurd lengths, launched the so-called “bone wars.” Being a destination for rapacious bone pillagers was part of the Wild West of Alberta history, as we learn in a highly entertaining, slightly chaotic way in MacKenzie’s tale of science and friendship gone wrong.

Long before Alberta’s oil rush, and long before we were busy co-opting the Klondike gold rush for promotional purposes, there was a bone rush. Bones were gold, dinosaurs were the rage, and the Badlands were big.

Marsh and Cope figure prominently in a story where time travelling happens the old-fashioned way — by canoe, on the Red Deer River — in a part of the world haunted by the ghosts of gigantic beasts.

A terrible storm drives four kids on a Badlands expedition — one observes mordantly that they’ve been aboard “the good ship Catastrophe” — to take cover in an abandoned mine.  When these junior palaeontologists use their expeditionary skills (“commence dinosaur discovery protocol!”), the past comes to life, dinosaurs, dinosaur-hunters, dinosaur profiteers and all.  As one of Laura Raboud’s jaunty songs has it, “the key to the future is dug up from the past.”

Dinosaurs. There’s something about them. Even more than they love the spectacle of adult palaeontologists behaving in outrageously childish ways, kids love dinosaurs. In the interests of accuracy my 10-year-old companion for the evening carefully amended that to “I like dinosaurs” at the outset.

Unlike yours truly, he was well acquainted with many of the dinosaurs in the poster catalogue on the lobby wall; he had thoughts, for example, about pterodactyl vs. pterodon nomenclature. He discussed with a passing theatre director the latter’s preference for the triceratops over other dinosaurs. He had things to say about the founding of the Tyrrell Museum.

In short, dinosaur enthusiasts who are also kids watching adult actors be kids make for a very discerning theatre audience on both counts. And I can report that my companion was highly entertained by the spirit and theatrical ingenuity of Bullough’s production. 

The kid group dynamic captured by sharp-eared MacKenzie, is amusingly set forth by an A-team of actors. A brave expeditionary force of earnest science aficionados led by their teacher (Chantelle Han), they’re hungry for skeletal signs of the dinosaurs “who tragically lost their lives 63 million years ago.” 

The performances are absolutely convincing: good grief, were these people once children? Elena Belyea and Kristen Padayas are hilariously fierce as competitors. Colin Dingwall is the helpful explanatory one, who remembers everything from the manual. Philip Nozuka plays a beaming kid, invariably a beat behind the rhythm of the exchanges, with his own original looped take on proceedings. “I love that guy!” said my companion.

The kids are torn between anxiety, excitement over a discovery, and righteous disapproval of the bone poaching that has corrupted the record of the past. Particularly timely for #marchonscience weekend is their absolute incredulity that there could be anyone alive, ever, who didn’t believe in evolution. I leave you to ponder, momentarily, the story of modern politics and the vagaries of time-travelling backwards.

The Bone Wars or The Curse of the Pathological Palaeontologists. Photo by Mat Simpson.

Anyhow, the arrival of a mysterious and spirited troupe of ladies in full 19th century dance-hall regalia, a team of Edmonton theatre faves led by Beth Graham, startles the expeditionary force, understandably. “I don’t think they’re from around here,” notes one.   

They sing, they dance, they conjure. Unlike Macbeth’s witches with their eye of newt, etc. they conjure “by the pterodon’s wings.” Their story of exploitation and the difficulty of finding a fair price for dinosaur bones,” the currency of their time, is all new to me. 

I can give you a rough idea of the plot, but it’s a bit of a maze, in truth. The two legendary rivals Marsh and Cope, appear, in person, competing for the secrets of a mad trapper. The latter is played by Fringe director Murray Utas, in a go-for-the-gusto performance of growly eccentricity my companion found particularly amusing. His loony mad trapper’s duds (designer: Brianne Kolybaba) did not go unnoticed.

The kids must lift “the curse of the pathological palaeontologists” by resolving the infamous Marsh/Cope rivalry (it’s a given; don’t ask). What they decide has implications for the here and now, and into the future of the place where dinosaurs once roamed.

Meanwhile, there’s the theatre fun of The Bone Wars and a subject matter normally addressed by big-budget movies. My companion was particularly struck, as was I, by the inventive movement design of Amber Borotsik. Group dances gradually coalesce; the actors come together to conjure spiny-backed dinosaurs. And there’s a song-and-dance tyrannosaurus who does a mean soft-shoe.

He also had kudos for Raboud’s music, and the live soundscape provided by Stefan Kijek and Allyson MacIvor, and pronounced the lighting on the hoodoos (by designer Zsófia Opra Szabó) “just like in Drumheller.” 

The thing about science, we glean, is that it’s a quest, which might be the shorthand for questions. As the scientist Richard Feynman said (cited on #marchforscience) “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”

Apparently it’s quite a bit like theatre that way.


The Bone Wars: The Curse of the Pathological Palaeontologists

Theatre: Punctuate! in association with Fringe Theatre Adventures

Written by: Matthew MacKenzie

Directed by: Chris Bullough

Starring: Leona Brausen, Davina Stewart, Elena Belyea, Kristen Padayas, Beth Graham, Murray Utas

Where: The Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: through April 29

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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