Klondykes a tale of transformation and freedom during the gold rush

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Mackenzie Reurink and Rebecca Ann Merkley in Klondykes. Photo credit Ian Jackson/EPIC Photography.

Sometimes you have to venture into the unknown to find yourself. While the saying is a cliché, it’s certainly something that happened a lot during the Klondike Gold Rush between 1886 – 1899 and seems to be one of the prevailing themes of the latest Guys in Disguise musical, Klondykesbased on my recent conversation with co-creators Trevor Schmidt and Darrin Hagen.

Klondykes is next up in Theatre Network’s 41st season, playing at The Roxy on Gateway February 4 – 21. 

Having taken several trips to the north in his travels across Canada, Darrin Hagen, who wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics for the show, says, “I’ve been to the north a couple times and everyone you meet up there is escaping from something or running away from something or looking for something. It’s a place where you go to search for yourself… ‘mysterium tremendum’ – that’s the word for coming up against something natural that’s so epic that it makes you feel completely insignificant and like a speck in the universe. Like when you’re standing at the edge of a cliff or looking at the stars and just going, ‘We’re nothing because there’s all this.‘ ”

Trevor Schmidt, who wrote the book and co-wrote the lyrics with Darrin, adds, “You become so small in such a large place. There’s so much sky and so much nature and you’re so isolated that I think you can’t help but be introspective and have self-discovery.”

In particular, Klondykes focuses on the psychological and physical journey of Hattie and Loosey, two women who are part of the stream of 100,000 people making their way up to the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush. Trevor says, “They sort of run away from a bad situation and they run away together. They’re involved in some sort of quasi-romantic relationship with each other and they partner to go create a new life together in the Yukon during the gold rush. And then [the authorities] won’t let them in because unmarried women weren’t allowed up there. So one of them disguises herself as a man and once they get into the Yukon, she discovers she kind of likes it. She ends up feeling powerful and free and the other one feels a little bit left out and neglected in that sense. There’s a big power disparity between them at that point. And then things change.”

Like many other Guys in Disguise shows, Klondykes started off as an idea for a show Darrin and Trevor wanted to put on themselves during Fringe, but the duo says when they started getting into creating the show, they realized an opportunity to bring in other actors to help them tell the story. Trevor explains, “We had a couple songs and we went, I think there’s more to this than we will be able to bring as men in drag… I think us in drag in the show would make a strange remove from it.”

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Mackenzie Reurink in Klondykes. Photo credit Ian Jackson/EPIC Photography.

Darrin adds that had they starred in the show, it would have been, “Men playing women playing men…We’ve done lots of guys dressing as girls. And we have done a lesbian subtext as well with Dragula. And we’ve played straight women on stage. But it felt like an interesting choice to have a woman dressed playing a man and being masculine… I grew up in rural Alberta and as a feminine man who grew up in a rural environment, I was always struck by the double standard about how being a feminine man was such a bad thing and yet I was surrounded by all these masculine women that moved freely in this masculine society. When you look at history, when they counted the bodies in the civil war, they found a woman that was dressed as a male soldier. More than one. Or Billy Tipton, a piano player and a doctor who was married three times and it wasn’t until after he died that it became public knowledge that he was a woman… It’s not even about passing as men, it’s about living a masculine life. There’s no sexual re-assignment surgery involved. There’s no drag. It’s about identity and transformation, which I think is at the core of all of our work.”

Trevor further explains that if he and Darrin were to star in the show, it would shift the focus away from the conversations about gender the play inspires. “For me, the play is about a time period when women dressed as men would be experiencing a kind of freedom. But the big point is you don’t have to be a man. That’s the big point of the play is the character comes to the realization when the other character says to her that you dressed as man to get into the Yukon, but now you’re in and you can be any kind of woman you want to be. You don’t have to be a man, you can be a woman who wears pants and goes and works in the mines. Don’t deny that you’re female. You don’t have to be a man.”

To tell Loosey and Hattie’s story, Trevor and Darrin cast Rebecca Ann Merkley and Mackenzie Reurink respectively. Rebecca and Mackenzie are joined by Amanda Neufeld who plays a number of characters the duo interacts with. Of the cast, Trevor says, “I have to commend the girls. They’re so musically talented. They’ve brought a guitar, one has learned to play the accordion and the spoons – they’ve learned musical instruments for this show, which is amazing.”

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Rebecca Ann Merkley in Klondykes. Photo credit Ian Jackson/EPIC Photography

With Klondykes taking the form of a song cycle, it gave Darrin a lot of freedom to play with different musical styles, and gave the cast an extra level of challenge to meet. Trevor and Darrin say the songs range in style from operetta, to music hall, pop, country, honky-tonk, working gang songs, hymnals and even some yodeling. Of course, there are also the requisite musical theatre-style songs but Darrin has tried to avoid the clichés that sometimes come with the genre, saying, “This show is different. It’s one I’ve always wanted to write in a lot of ways because it’s dissonant, it’s got touches of jazz chords, it’s not ‘HERE COMES THE KLONDYKE!’ all the time… We get to go to some unusual places and explore and experiment with dissonance and emptiness and minimalism.”

If the brief snippets I overheard from the rehearsal hall during our interview are any indication, Klondykes will be an evening of beautiful performances and thought-provoking subject matter that shines some light on the experience of gender during the Klondike Gold Rush and now.

Klondykes  is at The Roxy on Gateway February 4 – 20. Tickets are $26 – $30 (except two-for-one Tuesdays) through Theatre Network’s website or box office.

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