Theatre 20 – Joseph Aragon’s Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare

Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare is terrific entertainment. The new musical stamps Theatre 20 as a force to be reckoned with in the city.

The company, under artistic director Adam Brazier, is committed to story-driven music theatre.  Winnipeg composer/lyricist Joseph Aragon chose as his story, the trial of Burke and Hare. The two Irishmen and their wives were responsible for a string of murders in Edinburgh, Scotland between Nov. 1827 and Oct. 1828. The bodies were sold to anatomy teacher Dr. Robert Knox, and despite the dark subject, Aragon has fashioned a clever musical.

Aragon can write a catchy tune and craft witty lyrics. He also is clever at pastiche. An anatomy class dissection mimics a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song. Two prostitutes sing a lilting folksong. There are also many delicious echoes of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Rather than be a copycat, however, Aragon’s homages to these musical theatre icons are also his own stamp. His lyrics use both rhyming couplets and internal rhymes, and sometimes both, in his skilful use of words. Using the narrator effect in the person of the Lord Advocate at the trial, allows the story to be told with a minimum of fuss.

Beth Kates’ set includes an upper galley, a curtained lower stage beneath, and a movable staircase which director Brazier uses to good effect. At times, however, the exits and entrances from behind the curtains is a bit distracting. Melanie McNeill’s period costumes tend to be on the dark side, as is Stephen Ross’ lighting.

The players make up a dream cast and there is not a weak link in the bunch. Evan Buliung is a charismatic, sexy Burke, and Trish Lindstrom is perfect as his silly, girlish common law wife Helen McDougal. How nice it is to see the usually comic Eddie Glen pull off a serious role as the cowardly Hare. Jan Alexandra Smith gives a powerful performance as the frustrated, put upon Margaret Hare. David Keeley, who has never given a bad performance in his life, is excellent as Dr. Knox. Sweeney MacArthur makes a suitably stern Lord Advocate. Carly Street shows real anguish as prostitute Janet Brown in search of her missing friend.

The supporting roles contain very good actor singers in Kaylee Harwood, Jeff Irving, Donnie Macphee and Laura Jean Elligsen. Mention should be made that Aragon has given most of these secondary characters a time to be front and centre in song and speech. The unusual musical forces – viola, clarinet, flute and bassoon – are deftly led by musical director Jason Jestadt from the piano.

Bloodless: The Trial of Burke is a home-grown musical that deserves a long shelf life. It’s a winner.

Bloodless: The Trial of Burke, written and composed by Joseph Aragon, (starring Evan Buliung, Eddie Glen, Trish Lindstrom and Jan Alexandra Smith, directed by Adam Brazier), Panasonic Theatre, Oct. 9 to 28, 2012