Women in pants

When it comes to outdoor performances, the works of William Shakespeare usually top the bill.

When it comes to outdoor performances, the works of William Shakespeare usually top the bill.

But why the Bard? Why don’t we see “Shaw in the Park” or “Mamet in the Park?”

From the start, Shakespeare’s plays have been intended to be portrayed in sunlight – rather than the dingy shadows of a theatre.

At the Globe Theatre in 1600, stage lights were in short supply – forcing all plays to be illuminated by natural light.

Props and sets were also scarce, prompting scenes to be painted mainly with words.

“Language does most of the setting for you,” said Brad Lepp, the director of Dreamnorth Theatre’s production of Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night was Shakespeare’s 21st play, and one of his later comedies.

As a result, the Bard had already started to toy with the genre.

“He’s experimenting a bit more – he’s bringing up the drama,” said Lepp.

Earlier comedies such as a Midsummer Night’s Dream were basically written to be laugh-a-minute.

But Twelfth Night isn’t afraid to delve into a bit of “heartbreak,” said Lepp.

Malvolio, Olivia’s Puritan, killjoy steward, becomes the unfortunate target of a series of cruel high-school-esque mind games.

The character of Maria drafts a fake letter to Malvolio, supposedly from Olivia.

In it, Olivia proclaims her love for Malvolio, and implores him to woo her by smiling heavily and wearing yellow stockings.

Smitten, Malvolio obliges.

(It is Malvolio, who, in the throes of soon-to-be-unrequited love, speaks the famous line, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”)

The behaviour soon lands Malvolio in an insane asylum, where he is forced to forsake his Puritan background and swear allegiance to heretical texts.

Funny, but kind of pathetic once Malvolio discovers the awful truth.

“I’ll be reveng’d on the whole pack of you,” he says ominously in Act V.

Malvolio may also be a convenient Puritan punching bag.

Anti-fun and anti-theatre, the growing English Puritan movement stood in staunch opposition to Shakespeare’s chosen profession.

In less than 50 years, the Puritans would seize complete control of England, and all theatre would be outlawed.

One of the Twelfth Night’s most dominant characteristics is the theme of gender-bending.

To spark a romance between Duke Orsino and Lady Olivia, the leading character, Viola, dresses up as a man, Cesario.

Viola, however, soon falls in love with Orsino.

Olivia, meanwhile, falls in love with Viola’s alter-ego.

(Shakespearean characters were quite susceptible to love).

Cross-dressing was nothing new to Shakespeare.

In both the Merchant of Venice and As You Like It, female characters had donned male clothes in order to carry out actions that otherwise would have been difficult for women.

When Shakespeare rehashes cross-dressing for a third time in Twelfth Night, it’s clear that “he’s doing it for a reason,” said Lepp.

A 16th-century transvestite-rights advocate?

“He’s not tackling too many issues, but he is making a comment,” said Lepp.

As a man, Viola takes time to comment on the behavioral differences overtaking her masculinized form.

Lepp also reads a bit of same-sex tenderness emerging from the script.

“You see Viola starting to feel for Olivia in some ways, as she’s filling this male role of Cesario,” said Lepp.

“When someone’s pouring out their heart, it doesn’t matter if they’re a man or a woman, you start to empathize with them; you start to feel for them,” he said.

Comment aside, putting a woman in men’s clothing was always a surefire way to pull laughs out of an audience – as Rob Schneider would tragically discover a few centuries later.

Naturally, Viola’s ruse is flawless – none of the other characters suspects her genital discrepancies.

Staged centuries before the invention of breast-flattening tape, Viola’s deception takes a fair dose of suspended disbelief.

“There’s always one thing you kind of have to swallow,” said Lepp.

The pants-on-a-woman would have been even more confusing at the play’s original Globe Theatre production.

Women were not allowed on the Shakespearean stage. As a result, female roles often had to be played by boys.

Twelfth Night, therefore, would have featured a man (the actor) dressed as a woman dressed as a man.

The universality of Shakespearian plays means that modern performances can be set in almost any time period or context.

Except, of course, the time period that Shakespeare originally intended.

Dreamnorth’s production of Twelfth Night is no exception.

Twelfth Night takes place in the early 1930s – at the height of the Great Depression.

By setting the play in the Dirty Thirties, Lepp hoped to imbue it with contemporary relevance.

“You can’t step out your front door without reading about the economic recession,” said Lepp.

Unlike the economic bubble of Whitehorse, Lepp’s Toronto home has been amply shaken by the global recession.

“Friends of mine are getting laid off, and in Toronto, a lot of artists can’t get funding,” he said.

As Lepp plotted out Twelfth Night’s summer production, hard times were front of mind.

“That economic landscape was certainly in our heads as we were approaching this play for the first, or second, or third time,” he said.

Of course, Dreamnorth has its own hard-time economics to worry about.

Quite simply, schlepping some tattered shirts and dresses across the country is much cheaper than suitcases jammed with Elizabethan finery.

A Depression-era setting also casts a fitting cloud of desperation over the characters of Twelfth Night, who start the play wracked with longing and anguish of all kinds.

Why not further their sorrows just a tad more by putting them in a dirt-poor era free from alcohol?

Twelfth Night plays August 14, 15, 18 and 22 at 7 p.m. at Shipyards Park. There are matinee showings on August 15, 22 and 23 at 1:30 p.m.

Admission by donation.

Contact Tristin Hopper at