Cross-gender casting no joke, Twelfth Night director says

What: Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival
Where: Camosun College (Lansdowne campus)
When: The Winter’s Tale opens 7:30 tonight, continues to July 30. Twelfth Night opens 7:30 p.m. Friday, continues to July 30.
Tickets: $24 and $19 (for tickets and schedule see vicshakespeare.com)

 

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Because women were forbidden to be on stage in Shakespeare’s day, all female roles were performed by male actors.

Now, Victoria director Janet Munsil is taking the notion a step further.

In the Greater Victoria Shakespeare Festival’s new production of Twelfth Night, men play the female characters and women play all the male roles.

The approach can be viewed as an extension of the gender-switching within the play itself. In Twelfth Night, Viola disguises herself as a young man called Cesario. Olivia, falls in love with “him” — and so the fun begins.

Munsil emphasizes that, while Twelfth Night is a comedy, the cross-gender casting within her show won’t be played for cheap laughs.

“The challenge the company has taken up is to play the characters with honesty and compassion, rather than as a send-up,” said Munsil, a playwright known for such works as The Ugly Duchess and Emphysema/Smoking With Lulu.

The GVSF will also mount one of Shakespeare’s late plays, The Winter’s Tale. Director Barbara Poggemiller says she has encouraged her cast to use a “physically expressive approach” to help the audience engage with one of the Bard’s less familiar works.

“We have to spend time de-coding, finding action that brings the story to life and reveals the hearts and psyche of the characters,” she said.

The plays use several professional actors and mostly community performers — including students from the University of Victoria and the Canadian College of Performing Arts.

Now in its 26th season, the non-profit festival — produced on a budget topping $100,000 — drew 3,500 spectators last year. The GVSF is staged outdoors on the grounds of Camosun College’s Lansdowne campus.

To honour the 400th year since Shakespeare’s death in 1616, the festival will have a public launch party before tonight’s opening of The Winter’s Tale. The event, running 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., features a bouncy castle and a barbecue (with both meat and vegetarian options).

There will also be such games as the Shakespeare Bean-bag Toss and the Shakespeare Insult Game. For the latter, participants choose from three bags of “words” to produce a triple-pronged gibes.

“You can make a Shakespearean insult like: ‘Thou addlepated greasy-guts something,’ ” said Karen Lee Pickett, the festival’s artistic director.

To mark the centuries since Shakespeare’s passing, the GVSF has participated in a global video initiative called We Are Shakespeare. Hosted by the Shakespeare Theatre Association and Shakespeare at Notre Dame, it’s an online video library of short performances and testimonials.

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps and NDP MLA Carole James have each submitted Shakespeare-related videos to We Are Shakespeare. These can be viewed by following links at vicshakespeare.com.

Pickett believes two things make Shakespeare as relevant in 2016 as he was in 1616: his gift for language and his canny insight into what it means to be human.

“Those words still say something to us. They still say loads to us. He was really able to convey, in a dramatic way, the human condition and how we interact with the other. The human triumphs and human foibles that we’re all subject to,” she said.

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