Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Body-snatching tale bloody good

Play still not sure how serious it wants to be taken

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The Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival is 12 frenzied days of manufactured buzz, snap judgments and more forgiving audiences hungry to snap up a ticket to the must-see shows.

One of those productions in 2009, Joseph Aragon's musical Bloodless: The Trail of Burke and Hare -- the historically accurate story of a couple of opportunistic body snatchers at work in early 19th-century Edinburgh -- has re-emerged from the uproar and competition of 150 fringe options and presents itself ready, like one of the pair's victims, for dissection.

The beating heart of Bloodless is a black comedy about serial killers and their sinister trade in cadavers. It is entertainingly presented by director Sharon Bajer, has several sensational production numbers and shines with a new polish that was first applied during a high-profile revival by Toronto's Theatre 20 last fall. The runway setup with the audience facing each other brings everyone closer to the hard-working local cast. Aragon's music is tuneful, the lyrics even better.

It starts happily enough for Burke and Hare, a pair of barely-getting-by Irish immigrants, who come upon a money-making proposition. Hare, who runs a lodging house with his common-law wife Margaret, discovers a patron who still owes rent has died and that they can sell his corpse -- no questions asked -- to the local medical college run by noted physician but ethically challenged Robert Knox for a small fortune.

When Burke and Hare then find an old pensioner is very sick, and as the two eye another meal ticket, they sing one of the musical's highlights, Bugger is Better Off Dead. Burke, the keener of the two, convinces his more reluctant partner that there is not much difference between dead and nearly dead. Flushed with money, they see their domestic situations brighten as solid breadwinners and admirable entrepreneurs.

They begin to target transients, vagrants and prostitutes; people no one would miss. One of the ladies of the night is the young and comely Abigal, who makes a grand exit with the rousing Seize the Reins, which beings with the prophetic "Men are scum." Dorothy Carroll's Abigal sings Aragon's joyous celebration of living with tremendous gusto before ending up head down in a wooden barrel. It is the high point of Bloodless, bringing together all its disparate parts together in a life-and-death scene. It is also where the outside world seeps in to influence the rest of the gritty 150-minute drama that at times brings to mind the class injustice of Les Miserables and the murderous Sweeney Todd.

Manitoba is a province where more than 80 aboriginal women have gone missing, many of them by killers who thought they wouldn't be missed. Some are sex workers like Abigal who are easy prey. Bloodless, which refers to the suffocation mode and emotional state of Burke and Hare, darkens significantly as the question about the worth of human life is examined. One of Knox's students sings My God It's Her when he recognizes one of the victims who will be forgotten. The larky tone begins to grate.

Certainly, medical science is implicated in the crime spree, despite Knox's argument that the shortage of bodies for educational experiments is impeding his ability "to pry out its secrets."

The irony that Knox is paying for the bodies he suspects are being killed so he can use them to discover how to save others is the height of hubris. The long arm of the law offers little protection as well, so it's left to the dead prostitute's justice-seeking friend Janet (Mallory Schellenberg) to bring her murderers to justice.

In the title roles, Carson Nattrass as the charismatic Burke and Cory Wojcik as the cautious Hare were well cast as the crime duo. Both are fine singers and unearthed more depth for their characters in the second act as their scheme begins to unravel. Heather Madill plays Hare's wife, Margaret, with initial horror at being the recipient of the blood money but soon becomes dependent on it to raise her station in society. Jaclyn Kurceba, as Burke's wife Helen, also was effective, especially when discovering there is no honour among killers.

Kudos are in order to Emma Stefanchuk who, after her character was killed, was dropped into the barrel and rolled across the stage before it was taken offstage. The opening-night audience, which included the director of the Toronto production, Adam Brazier, winced with every revolution.

Bloodless is a strikingly original work that has evolved promisingly but is still not sure how serious it wants audiences to take it.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2013 D5

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