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Classic works take on the modern world in Bard on the Beach

North Vancouver's Colleen Wheeler performs in two productions this summer
Colleen Wheeler
At Bard on the Beach, North Vancouver actor Colleen Wheeler plays the title role in a feminist reworking of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens. She also appears in the Aristophanes’ comedy, Lysistrata, on alternating nights.

Timon of Athens and Lysistrata at Bard on the Beach, Howard Family Stage in the Douglas Campbell Theatre. For showtimes visit

 Dark times call for dark plays.

As the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival continues with its 29th season, North Vancouver veteran stage actor Colleen Wheeler is getting ready to appear in two productions slated to explore issues of economic anxiety, political dissonance, and protest, in the tragedy of Timon of Athens as well as in the play-within-a-play modern rendition of Lysistrata, a 2,400-year-old Greek comedy about the power of citizen action.

In Timon of Athens, Wheeler, who has lived on the North Shore for nine years, portrays the titular character, a privileged woman and a member of the “one per cent” who lives in a present-day city reminiscent of Vancouver.

“The character of Timon of Athens doesn’t really have any overtly redeeming qualities. A dark perspective sort of persists throughout the play and doesn’t really change, which I don’t think makes it less relevant at all, in fact I think it makes it more relevant to our world today because our perspective right now is pretty dark,” Wheeler says.

A beloved and generous Athenian, Timon shares her wealth and good fortune among her friends and other numerous hangers-on, but when she loses her entire fortune will those she previously lavished stick around in her time of need? Probably not, Wheeler explains.

“She basically begins as a wealthy women who gives very generously to all of her friends, and thinks that those friends are people who love her just as much as she loves them,” she says. “She finds herself in a position in the play where she’s run out of money and basically seeks help from them and is denied. It sends her into an existential crisis of sorts.”

The play, directed by Meg Roe, features a stellar cast of veterans – Wheeler herself estimates she has been in more than 25 Bard on the Beach productions – and festival newcomers intent on leaving audiences with a visceral reaction with regards to Timon’s descent after she isolates herself from her community, both physically and mentally, following being brushed aside by those she called friends.

“It’s a pretty flawed system we’re living in,” Wheeler notes. “We don’t really draw any conclusions at all. The themes that we’re exploring are specific, like nihilism, greed, ultraism, friendship, … but really the production that we’re doing doesn’t tie anything up for the audience.”

In Lysistrata, directed by Lois Anderson and adapted by Anderson and Jennifer Wise from Aristophanes’ classic text, a play within a play format leads to a striking piece of experimental political theatre. Players in the production portray both themselves as characters in the play Lysistrata as well as themselves as actors.

The women in the “cast” are supposed to be performing Hamlet, but instead decide to put on Aristophanes’ play as a form of protest, Wheeler explains, noting that within the play: “Vanier Park has been put up for a zoning for a shipping development, we’ve decided as a cast to protest that shipping development by putting on Lysistrata instead,” which is the classic tale of the first-ever female strike written by the playwright in the midst of a long war that was ravaging Ancient Greece.

“It’s totally cool because Lysistrata originally was a protest piece, so that’s what the director Lois Anderson has done with this piece,” she says.

While the structure of Bard on the Beach’s production of Lysistrata sounds complex, Wheeler insists that both plays she’s in offer perspectives that relate to current times.

With regards to Timon of Athens, Wheeler notes that Timon, like many Shakespeare characters, was originally written to be portrayed as male, something that she and director Roe have flipped around.

“The play’s been heavily adapted every time. You can’t really find a production that kept the script in its original state,” she says. “I think what’s happening now, not just at Bard on the Beach but at other theatres across the country and in the world really, is that people are realizing … a lot of the themes that we’re examining in these plays, regardless of gender, are universal.”