Jay Whitehead is no stranger to controversy. As artistic director of Lethbridge’s Theatre Outré, he made headlines earlier this year because of the forced closure of their new venue, Bordello. The queer performance space attracted the ire of some homophobic neighbours in the conservative Alberta community. “It was a highly traumatic experience,” says Whitehead, who eventually reopened the venue under the name Club Didi. “The media and social-media firestorm that accompanied the situation was scary at the time but ultimately helpful.”
Perhaps his brush with online notoriety was the prefect preparation for bringing his play Unsex’d to Buddies for Pride. The Theatre Outré production (which Whitehead co-wrote and performs in) reimagines the “boy players” of Shakespeare’s stage through the lens of TMZ and Perez Hilton. “I have always been fascinated by drag performance and the historical practice of men playing women onstage,” Whitehead explains. “I long imagined what it would be like if the boy players were the ‘celebutantes’ of their day — the male Paris Hiltons of the Renaissance, if you will.”
As Shakespeare in Love fans can attest, it was standard practice for the Bard’s heroines to be portrayed by teen boys. But don’t go to Unsex’d expecting a history lesson. “I’m reimagining Shakespearean England as if these actors had their work reviewed by Plebians Magazine and walked thatched carpets at play premieres,” Whitehead says. “There’s a real combining of modern-day celebrity excess and interests with Shakespearean language and costume. I was interested in exploring a time when effeminate men were leading ladies and not told by their agents to butch it up if they ever cared to work.”
After an opening in Lethbridge, Unsex’d comes to Toronto hot on the heels of successful runs in Dublin and Halifax, where it won Best of Fest at the Atlantic Fringe. According to Whitehead, though, the trickiest audience to play so far has been Calgary, where a prudish critic was so scandalized by the play’s use of crude language and bare buttocks that she asked on Twitter, “Is there such a thing as a gay play? I think not.” “She didn’t get the camp,” Whitehead laments — a problem it’s safe to assume a Buddies audience won’t be burdened with.