Play sees girls dress as boys for survival

Young girls passing themselves off as boys to survive is the focus of a new play, writes COLETTE SHERIDAN, who talks to the actresses and friends who star alongside each other in the production
Play sees girls dress as boys for survival
Actresses Aideen Wylde and George Hanover. Pictures by Marcin Lewandowski / sound of photography

FASCINATED with the idea of assuming a false identity, playwright and actor, Aideen Wylde, has written a play, Levin & Levin which sees two young girls passing themselves off as boys and then as young men to survive in a dangerous world.

Set in the early 1900s, two Jewish girls; Bubbie, played by Aideen, and the slightly older Ida, played by actress George Hanover, escape the pogroms of Russia, and flit across continents, taking in various countries in Europe as well as New York.

“We play them looking back at their lives,” says Aideen.

Directed by Veronica Coburn and Bryan Burroughs, with original music by John O’Brien, the play, produced by Broken Crow theatre company, uses vaudeville, slapstick and cabaret and includes appearances from the likes of Rasputin, Freud and Hitler. It follows the lives of the duo until about 1933.

The Levins — who are not related — take on the clothes of boys as a way of life because they’ve been conditioned to think that it’s not safe to be any other way.

“They’re on their own. Their story starts when they’re aged about eight and ten. They become conditioned. Nobody tells them it’s OK to be who you are,” said Aideen.

Ger Fitzgibbon, who has written the lyrics, has described the play as “a biographical striptease”. Aideen says this sums up the drama which is about peeling away “the layers and layers of these characters”.

As part of her research, Aideen read about different women through the ages who disguised themselves as men.

“I wouldn’t say it was common but it was not unheard of. There were women disguised as men who fought on the front. There was Dr James Barry from Cork who was actually a woman in disguise. So while the play is a flight of fancy, it’s absolutely inspired by real stories, people who did incredible things.

“What would you do to survive? The two characters are in life-threatening situations. They have had to go from being children to teenagers and all that brings, to becoming women without any guidance. They live in a male-dominated world.

“Part of the play looks at child exploitation in factories, and the two ‘little boys’ experienced working in child labour.”

Actresses Aideen Wylde and George Hanover. Pictures by Marcin Lewandowski / sound of photography
Actresses Aideen Wylde and George Hanover. Pictures by Marcin Lewandowski / sound of photography

While the pair, escaping ethnic cleansing, are friends “through thick and thin,” there comes a point in their relationship where that kind of co-dependency can’t sustain itself.

“They grow apart and resent each other. The play becomes about trying to figure out if there’s any way they can stay together. They become very different people in their outlook and ideology. It drives a wedge between them,” said Aideen.

There is no such conflict in the real life relationship between Aideen and George. The two actresses are great friends and say that working on Levin & Levin has solidified their friendship.

“It’s really nice to work with a friend whom you trust implicitly and who is so professional,” says Aideen. She is originally from Clonmel and is a graduate of UCC with a Master’s degree under her belt. She is currently working towards a doctorate which involves staging a play that examines Irish/Jewish identity.

Corkonian George moved to Dublin 18 months ago.

“I guess I wanted to push on, to see what else is possible,” she says. “Working in Cork has been really fantastic. But being in Dublin is a real platform. The exposure is great. I still do some work in Cork. Gavin, my partner, has asked me when am I going to move back to Cork, given that I’m here as often as I am in Dublin. I have so many links with Cork. But I have to keep my focus on Dublin. I have loads going on. There are things coming my way that I can’t talk about yet.

“Since I moved, I did my first feature film, Randomer by Gerry Stembridge. It was shown at the Cork Film Festival last year and it’s doing the round of festivals. I also did Override, by Stacey Gregg which was on at the Dublin Fringe Festival last September.”

When George comes to Cork, she often stays with Aideen — and the two actresses’ dogs get on famously.

“It must be what it’s like minding each other’s kids,” says George, who describes herself as “a student of life”.

“I don’t hold an official degree. When I left school in 1995, there was very little happening in Cork (for a budding actress.) I wasn’t in a position to leave or ready to leave. So I decided the best way of learning was to pull the sleeves up and muck in. I started at the CAT Club in Sexual Perversity in Chicago by David Mamet. I paid my rent with my first pay cheque from that production. It wasn’t until 2005 that I gave up the day job in telemarketing, which was horrific.”

George has clearly found her niche.

Levin & Levin is the first play that Aideen has written on her own.

“I’ve had lots of support and mentorship and advice in getting it over the line. I co-wrote Love All a few years ago. Putting on my first solo work is terrifying. I go through waves of feeling every day. But I look around the rehearsal room and think all these amazing people are there of their own volition. So hopefully, that’s a good thing.

“As an artist, I feel stretched to the outer reaches of my abilities in terms of performing, writing and singing. No doubt I will look back some day and say that we had great experiences doing this play.”

Aideen welcomes the Everyman’s policy of nurturing local artists and companies.

“Getting a chance to put our work on a main stage is fantastic,” she says.

Levin & Levin’ is at the Everyman until Saturday, April 15 (excluding Friday.) See http://www.everymancork.com/

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