Unrequited love, a little cross dressing, a few cases of mistaken identity and a bit of good old fashioned mischief.
It’s a combination that can’t help but delight and amuse, as Bard in the Valley returns with its third season offering — a production of one of Shakespeare’s best loved comedies, Twelfth Night, in Douglas Park.
Written in the early 1600s, Twelfth Night follows Viola, a young aristocratic woman who finds herself shipwrecked on the shores of Illyria and disguises herself as her twin brother Sebastian (whom, she assumes, was lost at sea) in order to protect her virtue in this strange land.
While dressed as a man, Viola catches the eye of Olivia, a young noblewoman who is coveted by Duke Orsino. The Duke, in turn, is beloved by a disguised Viola.
As in all of Shakespeare’s comedies the play ends in a flurry of couplings and happily ever afters.
The fun part, is getting there.
Stepping into the lead role of Viola for BITV’s production is Caroline Dearden, a 20-year-old Langley actress. Dearden, who played Phoebe in last year’s production of As You Like It, didn’t go into auditions with any particular part in mind, but said winning her first lead role has been both a thrill and a challenge.
“I’ve kind of been discovering new things about Viola each time I go to rehearsal,” said the actress.
“She’s very strong and has strong ideas. She’s sympathetic to Olivia and understands what it’s like to be in love with someone who can’t love you back.”
Beyond the laughs it provides, Twelfth Night is imbued with a level of insight that spans the centuries since it was penned.
“Shakespeare was a very keen observer of human nature,” said Dearden, adding the play is “quite brilliantly written and quite relevant today.”
While she loves the open environment of the outdoor Spirit Square stage in Langley City, performing live theatre in a park presents some rather unique challenges, the young actress acknowledged.
“Last year, a young gentleman walked up on stage (during a performance). Everyone just kept going,” she said, with a laugh.
Then there was the fallout of the blistering August heat the year before.
During its inaugural season, while performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the concrete around the stage burned the bare feet of the faeries and had to be hosed down between acts. But the water evaporated almost as quickly as it was splashed on.
“It was really, really hot,” recalled Jacq Ainsworth, who performed as a tree in that production.
This year, Jacq has slipped into the director’s chair, alongside her mother, June Ainsworth.
“She’s the one with all the experience. She’s the one with all the vision and she’s letting me play,” laughed Jacq.
For the younger Ainsworth, that has meant working closely with the actors to help them fine-tune their performances.
Neither woman was sure how the performers would respond to having two directors.
“It can be difficult for the actors at first, because they don’t know who’s boss,” said June.
But it’s working, the women agree.
“I’m telling the big story,” said June. “Jacq is working on the finer details. It takes a lot of the pressure off me, because I totally trust what she can do.
“She has skills. She’s seen me direct, she knows where I’m coming from.”
Of course, one of the first things a director must do to get any production rolling is select their performers.
Because the plot of Twelfth Night calls for an actor and actress similar enough to pass as twins who could be mistaken for one another, casting was a challenge, June conceded.
“We managed to get two dark-haired people who are about the same build,” she said.
Beyond that, she said, audiences are asked to suspend their disbelief and just enjoy the mayhem created by the confusion.
In Shakespeare’s day, all the roles — including the women — were played by men. In Bard in the Valley’s case, however, a shortage of male performers has turned that tradition on its head.
Three male roles have been combined into one character, to be played by a male actor.
That worked out in that the character is able to go into both Olivia’s and Orsino’s courts, Jacq explained.
“He gets an overview and becomes our guide. We get to see the full story from his perspective.”
A number of other masculine roles in the production, meanwhile, have been filled by women.
That’s led to a bit of a plot twist, Jacq revealed.
“Just by virtue of having to cast some women in men’s roles we found another love triangle,” she said.
Which characters, exactly could be caught up in it?
Well, say the directors, you’ll just have to come to a performance and see.
Twelfth Night runs from Thursday to Sunday, Aug. 9 to 12 and Aug. 16-19 on the Spirit Square stage in Douglas Park.
On Aug. 25 and 26 it moves to the International Festival at Langley Events Centre.
The plan is to have a truck at the Douglas Park location, selling hotdogs and cold drinks, said June. Some chairs will be set out, but audiences are encouraged to bring a lawn chair or blanket with them. Evening performances begin at 7 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.
Admission is free, but the drama group will be accepting donations to help them with ongoing expenses and to enable them to mount future productions.