The end of an emotionally exhausting pandemic is perhaps the perfect time for the premiere of a play that turns death and dissection into dark humour. The Resurrectionists, which opened at the Yukon Arts Centre Wednesday night, starts with some snappy graveyard one-liners, then brings some thought-provoking themes onto the stage, and wraps up — unlike the pandemic, hopefully — with a bang, not a fade out.
The play is based loosely on Victorian-era events at Queen’s medical school in Ontario. A shortage of cadavers from the local penitentiary soon has local cemetery caretakers running into shovel-carrying medical students in the middle of the night.
Magda (Alita Powell) is a young woman who is painfully aware she is on a slow track from a dull job at the cemetery to a dull marriage her father (Eric Epstein) has in mind for her. Despite university being off limits for women at the time, a nocturnal encounter with medical student William (Ben Charland) soon has Magda plotting to take control of her life. In more ways than one.
Powell quickly establishes her presence on stage. She delivers those one liners with pep, subtly communicates the gap between Magda’s life and her aspirations, and soon has the audience rooting for Magda.
Charland delivers a multi-layered character in William. He’s a talented student, but somehow struggling with the real-life demands of humorously high-maintenance classmate Andrew (Calvin Laveck) and the august but cadaver-mongering Professor Hade (James McCullough).
The cast is rounded out by dull future husband Tom (Roy Neilson) and police officer Tomkins (Michael Rolfe), both of whom liven the proceedings with some key scenes.
Yukon theatre enthusiasts will enjoy seeing the depth of new and established local talent in the production. Powell and Laveck are back on stage in their hometown after the Canadian College of Performing Arts in Victoria and Sheridan Institute in Toronto respectively. Meanwhile stage sourdoughs McCullough and Epstein anchor the play with the mature performances we have come to expect from them.
The same is true offstage. The score suits the play well, and was written by Yukon musician Matthew Lien. The high production values are a testament to the strong team behind the scenes.
The Resurrectionists is written by Meg Braem, recently the Lee Playwright in Residence at the University of Alberta. The dialogue moves briskly. It is well salted with memorable lines, and a few rapid fire exchanges that got the audience laughing. She successfully layers on themes about ambition, the position of women in society and death. She gets the audience thinking, but doesn’t turn the play into a worthy graduate seminar. And, perhaps most importantly in a play, she keeps a few cards up her sleeve for the last act.
Brian Dooley of Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre directs the play dynamically. He moves the scenes forward snappily and keeps our attention on the action. The staging also works well, with the simple but effective use of surgical screens to define the stage. The direction and staging are perhaps a bit too brisk in the second half when scenes and surgical screens seem to zip past us, but overall the production works very well. They have the audience exactly where it is supposed to be for the finale.
The pandemic safety precautions at the Yukon Arts Centre are reassuring. Masks are de rigeur and, even on a sold-out evening, the seat spacing made it feel like we were at a private viewing. There is no interval for mingling in the lobby, which is both safer and less fun. You’ll have to slip away somewhere private with your friends afterwards to chat about those themes and one-liners.
Kudos to Executive Producer Katherine McCallum and Larrikin Entertainment for pulling together such a strong performance.
I highly recommend you see it in Whitehorse or on tour in Watson Lake, Atlin, Haines Junction or Dawson City. Playdates and tickets are limited so book now. Especially since, as the Resurrectionists reminds us, if you delay you might end up dead and miss the whole thing.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist, author of the Aurore of the Yukon youth adventure novels and co-host of the Klondike Gold Rush History podcast. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.