Digging into identity with Klondykes

Living in Canada, you can’t help but hear about the Klondike Gold Rush in general terms: 100,000 people making their way to one of the harshest areas of North America in pursuit of riches. Or, alternatively, as a means of escaping something.

Klondykes – a Guys in Disguise and Theatre Network production playing until February 21 – focuses on the experience of two women during the gold rush, particularly honing in on how each person’s expression of their gender influences their experience of the gold rush.

Told as a song cycle musical, Klondykes is a self-described ‘sort-of love story’ about Hattie (played by Mackenzie Reurink) and Loosey (played by Rebecca Ann Merkley). The two protagonists – one from the east, the other from the west, both running from something – meet while working as dance hall girls in Winnipeg, serving drinks and entertaining the men that they themselves have no interest in. Brought together in these circumstances, the two fall in love. Their bliss is nearly ruined when Loosey gets herself into legal trouble, but Hattie, in a decision that seems driven by equal parts love and opportunity, seizes the moment to suggest they run away together to the north to join the gold rush. Upon arrival, they find out that unaccompanied women are not allowed into the north, and so Hattie dons a man’s garb and the two settle into life as “man and woman” in a gold rush town. However, the two must learn what the identities they have adopted mean for themselves and for their relationship.

Guiding the audience through Hattie and Loosey’s story is the narrator, played by Amanda Neufeld. Amanda also plays a host of other characters the two meet in their journey: a mountie, Black Pearl (the owner of a dance hall in the Yukon), and Mister Yen (a Chinese owner of a laundromat and bath house), completely transforming between each character and allowing them to tell their own stories of adapting to the very different social environment of the north.

Written by Trevor Schmidt and Darrin Hagen, Klondykes explores what it is like to move through the world as a woman with a specific lens on self-expression through feminine or masculine characteristics. While the play uses the idea of outer appearances to open up that conversation, the play goes much deeper than appearances. It asks questions that go beyond the clothes the characters choose to adopt, such as how emotionally intelligent are you? Or how ambitious are you? Or, do you react to things by reflecting internally or projecting externally? Are you a feminine woman or a masculine woman and how does that dictate your perceived place in the world? While obviously Klondykes is told in the context of the late 1800s, it’s easy to draw the line between then and now.

In particular, I loved how this idea of one’s outer appearance was expressed through two contrasting songs: the pants song and the corset song. The pants song happens as Hattie dons pants and an overcoat to present herself as a man so she and Loosey can enter the Yukon. From this moment onwards, we watch Hattie find her place in the world as she is finally able to express herself as a masculine woman in an environment where her masculinity is rewarded.

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

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

The corset song comes at a much different point in the play, as Loosey comes to terms with not being happy in the north. She understands how to operate outside of the Yukon, in a world where she knows how to use her femininity to bring her power. In the new social structure of the north, we see her feel lost as she loses her independence and finds herself needing a man to operate in the world.

Throughout the show, we see a subtle power transfer from Rebecca as Loosey to Mackenzie as Hattie as their experiences of their gender changes. The longer the two spend in the Yukon, the more we see Mackenzie’s character blossom and become more confident, seemingly draining that confidence from Rebecca’s character, as Rebecca slowly becomes more introverted and physically withdrawn.

The cast Darrin and Trevor have chosen for Klondykes is fantastic. While I don’t know much about singing, I can tell that the score is difficult and demanding. Rebecca, Amanda and Mackenzie harmonize beautifully and are equally as strong and powerful on their own. There is not a lot of movement work in the play, but the songs are so emotive that it really doesn’t feel like it’s missing. The emotion of the story is also emphasized through the partnership of the lighting and set design (by Adam Tsuyoshi Turnbull and Trevor Schmidt respectively), where LED lights are interwoven with set pieces and change colour to reflect and create the emotion of each song. The three ladies are joined on stage by pianist Nick Samoil, who does justice to the music Darrin composed for the play, and adds to the overall feeling that the audience is experiencing the performance in a saloon.

Klondykes resists the fault that some musicals have where an entire song (or more!) is spent on only one plot point. In Klondykes, each song is lean and drives the story forward. This keeps the show to a quick 70-minute run time, however, I think there is room to grow the script and explore even more of the nuances around identity that are present in the script and songs. For example, I would have been interested in learning more about Loosey’s experience when her lover chooses to stay dressed as a man, given that she is not sexually attracted to men. The script starts towards idea with Loosey’s dismay at Hattie choosing to remain dressed as a man by saying, “But, I don’t like men.” While we can see the toll the entire experience takes on their relationship, spending more time on the moments where gender expression becomes a choice rather than something imposed by society would have added even more to the play’s exploration of identity.

Klondykes shows how our choices build to create our identity. It takes the conversation around expression of gender identity from man vs. woman to something much more subtle: what elements of your identity are masculine? Which are feminine? And how do those elements of your identity work within your relationships or with the expectations of the society you’re moving within?

Klondykes plays at The Roxy on Gateway until February 21. Tickets are $26 – $30 (except two-for-one Tuesdays) through Theatre Network’s website or box office. A free-of-charge talkback with Theatre Network’s Artistic Director Bradley Moss and the creative team behind Klondykes will be held after the show on February 13 (approximately 9:15 p.m.).

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