Matthew MacKenzie’s family friendly latest, Bone Wars, digs up universal truths

Bone Wars by Matthew MacKenzie, a Punctuate! Theatre production at the Backstage Theatre April 19 – 29. Photo credit Mat Simpson.
Bone Wars by Matthew MacKenzie, a Punctuate! Theatre production at the Backstage Theatre April 19 – 29. Photo credit Mat Simpson.

There is one theatre company that seems to be becoming synonymous with the word ‘epic’ in this city: Punctuate! Theatre.

The company’s style in recent years has been to produce one show a year, putting as much as possible into that show. The independent theatre company’s latest – Bone Wars: The Curse of the Pathological Palaeontologists, by Matthew MacKenzie – continues to fit that M.O.: dinosaurs, a 26-person cast & crew, and a number of interdisciplinary elements that make the show accessible to all ages.

In Bone Wars, we meet a group of four eleven-year-olds and their neighbour who go on a dinosaur bone searching expedition down the Red Deer River. Being overtaken by a storm, the group seeks refuge in an abandoned mine and accidentally activate a curse that will have them experiencing the heyday of fossil discovery by rival palaeontoligists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, meeting a variety of wild west characters who are all trying to keep Cope and Marsh’s mistakes from being repeated.

Director Chris Bullough says, “It’s a very rich 75 minutes of theatre.”

“There really is something for everyone. The dialogue is snappy and fun. The music is absolutely beautiful and so exciting. Laura Raboud’s music is blowing me away. Amber Borotsik is one of my favourite choreographers – she really understands theatre and dance and is able to meld the two… It’s all-access – anyone could come to this. Kids will be coming, but we’re inviting families to come and we’re inviting the general theatre-going public to come. I love that it’s accessible in that way. It’s very funny as well. There’s just a humour and joy even though we’re tackling these pretty big subjects, but that passion is really infectious. There’s a mischievousness to it that’s fun.”

Like other Matthew MacKenzie plays, Bone Wars isn’t afraid to tackle big questions. Chris says Matthew’s reflection of the current economic and political climate is what excites him most about this production. “I find [Matthew has] an incredible sense of what theatre needs to be right now. It needs to be big and brave and eventful. It needs to be truthful and funny and entertaining but also beautiful… He’s very sensitive and passionate about what he does and isn’t afraid to be political and to say what he thinks should happen in the world.”

A major theme of Bone Wars Chris points to is what he calls “truth in a post-truth world.”

The show explores this theme by pointing out the hubris with which we are treating the world around us. “The stars of our show are these kids who are out there with their hands in the dirt digging up bones and discovering evidence of these creatures that shared this earth with us hundreds of millions of years ago and were wiped out by environmental disaster. Even though they were huge and towered hundreds of feet above us – giant 15 metre long birds and giant lizards owned the skies and cerapods roamed in giant herds – they were able to be wiped out by this cloud that covered the atmosphere. There’s hubris in what we’re doing and also a disconnect between what we teach our children and what our politicians do and say. We teach our children about truth and the scientific method and right now we seem to be governed by emotion and conspiracy theories. We should trust in our scientists, these people who have spent so much money and time on research, and instead of muzzling them, we should listen to them.”

The play also tackles capitalism through the characters of palaeontologists Marsh and Cope, who let their greed and desire for fame ultimately destroy their reputations, work and finances as they tried to sabotage each other’s efforts to find dinosaur fossils. Chris adds, “Marsh and Cope treated the West and all these bones like their property. I think it brings up other issues as we’re dealing with our colonialist history. What version of history did we get taught and is there something else there in order for me to truly understand this land that we live on and call my own?”

And while the underlying themes of the play are serious, Chris says this play, like Matthew MacKenzie’s other work, seems to come from a place of love for the world and imagining how we can make it better. “His work soars. It’s not dragged down into the mire of everything. It’s definitely saying something. He can shout in your face, but he also whispers in your ear and tickles your toes. He has ways of communicating with you. He has a lot of tools in his toolbox that he uses to find not only the humanity of his characters but there’s hope and joy and there’s a love of this life, acknowledging its chaos and how confusing and frustrating it can be. But there’s an acknowledgement of how beautiful it can be and how much better it could be if we can find a way to work towards peace and prosperity – whatever that means – if we can get past whatever we’re trying to deal with right now.”

Bone Wars: The Curse of the Pathological Palaeontologists by Matthew MacKenzie is produced by Punctuate! Theatre at the Backstage Theatre April 19 – 29.

Bone Wars features a stellar Edmonton cast & crew:

Matthew MacKenzie – playwright/co-producer

Chris Bullough – director

Amber Borotsik – movement designer

Laura Raboud – musical director

Elena Belyea – Tickailia

Kristen Padayas – Thulasy

Philip Nozuka – Chelsea

Colin Dingwall – Don

Chantelle Han – Chantelle

Beth Graham – Morna

Madelaine Knight – Shimmer

Paula Humby – Gunner

Gianna Vacirca – Bora Bora

Rebecca Merkley – Olly

Leona Brausen – Marsh

Davina Stewart – Cope

Sheiny Satanove – producer/publicist

Julie Ferguson – production/stage manager

Andrea Murphy – assistant stage manager

Trent Crosby – technical director

Zsofia Opra-Szabo – set designer

Brianna Kolybaba – costume designer

Sarah Karpyshin – props master

Kai Villneff – assistant set + lighting designer