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Veteran actress relishes role of gender-bending heroine

Western Gold stages the Bard’s Twelfth Night
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Eileen Barrett plays Viola in Western Gold Theatre Society’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Actress Eileen Barrett has longed to be Viola her whole life.

“And so at the grand old age of 54, it’s my first chance to play this boy,” says Barrett, in between rehearsals for Western Gold Theatre’s presentation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

Barrett was 10 the first time she was entranced by Twelfth Night’s gender-bending heroine. Her mother took her to a touring production of the romantic comedy put on by the Royal Shakespeare Company.

“So it’s always been one of my favourites of the Bard’s works,” she says.

A veteran stage and film actress, Barrett is enjoying working with the Western Gold cast staging the Twelfth Night reading. Set in the ancient kingdom of Illyria (the western Balkans), twins Viola and Sebastian are separated in a shipwreck. Viola disguises herself as a boy to become a page in Duke Orsino’s court, but ends up falling for the duke, who is in love with the Countess Olivia, who falls for “Viola.” And let the confusion, mistaken identity and conniving begin.

What sets this production apart, says Barrett, is that it’s less about the pageantry and more about the words on the page.  

“I think what Anna [Hagan] our director is trying to do is go back to the text and have it be about listening to the text… because really with Shakespeare if you pay attention to the text and the punctuation he gives it all to you,” says Barrett.

At one point Viola is forced into a swordfight with Sir Andrew, a buffoonish caricature of a character, describes Barrett. It’s a purposely “very bad sword fight” staged on a rudimentary set similar to Shakespeare’s Globe.

“Fortunately for me there isn’t actually any [sword fighting] skill involved,” says Barrett, with a laugh.

The show is set around a thrust stage — where the audience sits on three sides — which is great, says Barrett, “because it makes it seem like the audience is another character, which they should be.”

Playing a cross-dressing character was a study in social constructs for Barrett.

“One of the things that’s quite lovely about Twelfth Night is there is a fair amount of gender fluidity in terms of who becomes attracted to whom,” says Barrett.” It actually says a lot about: Is gender just a construct that we have come up with as a society? So it’s very interesting.”

Barrett launched her acting career in 1984, after graduating from Langara College’s Studio 58, picking up roles with theatre companies from coast to coast.

When asked what her big break was, Barrett laughs.

“I think I’m still waiting for it, actually,” she says. “I am like most of us — a working actor.”

However, Barrett admits she has had some wonderful opportunities along the way.

Her favourite stage role, which won Barrett a Jessie award, was portraying a child who was sexually abused by her uncle behind the wheel in How I learned to Drive.

Barrett also performed in My Mother’s Story at Presentation House Theatre a few years ago. Sixty women from North Vancouver submitted their mother’s stories, spanning multi generations, for the project. Ultimately eight were chosen to be performed. Calling it a really cool project, Barrett says it was an honour to portray these women.

“We are talking about a generation of women who say, ‘I don’t know why you would want to write about me, I’m just an ordinary person.’ I think what it brought up for us is that ordinary people have extraordinary lives.”

Barrett counts Supernatural, Stargate and Ramona and Beezus among her film and TV credits and she will next be seen in Little Pink House, starring Catherine Keener. Barrett plays U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in the Erin Brockovich-esque film about a small-town nurse who fights to save her neighbourhood from being sold to the Pfizer corporation.

Speaking on International Women’s Day, Barrett says it was an honour to play Ginsburg, who she calls “a kickass force for women.”

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, as part of Western Gold’s Studio Series, at PAL Studio Theatre, 581 Cardero St., Vancouver, March 10 to 19. Tickets: $27 online at 12th.BrownPaperTickets.com, or call 604-363-5734.