Monday, October 15, 2012


Special to TorSun
15 OCT 2012
R: 3.5/5

Pictured: Evan Buliung, Trish Lindström

TORONTO - If, in lieu of life imitating art, life were to imitate musical theatre instead, Theatre 20's natal production, which launched Toronto's newest company last week on the stage of the Panasonic Theatre, would be Broadway-bound, destined to sweep the Tonys and carry all the talented artists involved with this promising new company to richly deserved stardom. But things work the other way around, of course, and because BLOODLESS: THE TRIAL OF BURKE AND HARE — a new Canadian musical written and composed by Joseph Aragon — still has a way to go in creating a viable imitation of the seedy lives it attempts to portray, audiences and players alike are simply going to have to content themselves with a first production that lands happily somewhere between promising and highly promising.

Part of this production's problems, of course, rest ultimately in Aragon's book and score, which spins out a tale that both thematically and stylistically owes a considerable debt to one of Stephen Sondheim's more enduring works: Think Sweeney Todd, with a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan thrown in; a true-life tale of two ex-pat Irishmen on a murder spree in 19th century Edinburgh, providing fresh cadavers for medical dissection, while enriching themselves in the process. It gets insufficient help here in a production helmed by Adam Brazier — already a director of no small accomplishment, who for all his talents, just can't seem to get his extensive and highly talented cast singing out of the same songbook, at least on a figurative level.

Is this the dark and sexy thriller Evan Buliung's finely-drawn William Burke suggests? Or is it the silly black comedy that Trish Lindström's broadly overblown take on Burke's wife, Margaret, leads us to expect? Is everyone as two-dimensionally villainous as David Keeley's portentous turn suggests, cast as the supposedly respectable Dr. Knox — a man whose willingness to turn a blind eye to the murderous ways of our two protagonists comes as a surprise to no one? Or, finally, is everyone as innocent and winsomely tragical as Carly Street's well-scrubbed, well-fed and bodacious bawd, Janet Brown?

Is life as bleak and dour as Jan Alexandra Smith's touching portrayal of Helen McDougal, partner to William Hare, sees it, or as inconsequential as Eddie Glen's David Hare leads us to believe, at least on the rare occasions when he emerges from the shadows of superior performances by Buliung and Smith? Finally, is it the horror story its ending suggests, or does it follow through on its title in the fashion of Dr. Knox's single dissection, wherein viscera emerges from the body like jars of pickles and preserves? Or is it simply as it finally appears, merely a morality play that strives to amuse without ever offending, sidestepping the humanity of the tale at nearly every turn?

It is almost as though Brazier has forgotten that good theatre is not merely art imitating life, but rather art imitating life (and death) through a prism of order and vision imposed by a strong director. BLOODLESS, for all the charm Brazier has unearthed, still needs another blood transfusion — of the blood, sweat and tears variety.

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