By day, Paul O’Shaughnessy is an electrical engineer, working on biotech machines for tissue sample processing.

By night, he’s an 18th century shoemaker wearing a tricorn hat and breeches.

“I get whiplash on Monday morning,” he explains.

O’Shaughnessy is a historical reenactor who specializes in the colonial era, and when I meet him—thirty minutes before a dress rehearsal for the 242nd anniversary of the Boston Tea Party at the Old South Meeting House, which took place Wednesday night—he’s a little out of his element.  That’s because for this occasion he’s playing a colonist, and what he really prefers is be a British soldier, one of the scarlet-clad baddies of the American Revolution.

“Normally I work for His Majesty, but tonight I’ll be shouting revolutionary drivel from the pulpits,” he says. “Every fiber of my being just wants the place to burn to the ground.”

O’Shaughnessy isn’t reading from a script as he says this. It comes naturally out of his mouth, in the first person, just as his accounts of needling colonists about their pesky protests do. Like all of the reenactors I met at Old South, O’Shaughnessy can switch seamlessly between his character, or his 18th century self, and his 21st century self in the present day.

That’s fitting, because if you ask many of them, they’ll tell you there aren’t as many differences between today and back then as we’d like to think.

“One of the things that fascinates me is that our clothes may be different than those of 2015, but in so many ways we are more alike to our counterparts of the past than unalike,” says Henry Cooke, who makes historical costumes for a living. He’s wearing a large, round, curly wig, so it’s a little disconcerting to hear him say he graduated from high school in 1975, not 1775 (and began reenacting at the suggestion of his guidance counselor, no less.)

Cooke is portraying the judge Samuel Savage, who back in 1773 was given the thankless task of trying to corral 5,000 angry colonists at the explosive town meetings that led to the Tea Party.

The short version of the story is this: in 1773, the British Parliament tried to wring money out of the American colonies by levying a tax on tea. The colonists—not having any representation in Parliament and so no say in the tax—did not like this. So when three ships arrived that month bearing crates and crates of the stuff, they met at Old South to argue over whether they could legally and peacefully prevent the tea from being unloaded into Boston.

The answer was no. But dumping the tea amounted to treason, and many Bostonians still felt loyalty to the crown and were trying to protect their own livelihoods. What resulted was a series of meetings full of shouting, name-calling, and finger-pointing.

“If you didn’t agree with the most radical of these patriots, the Sons of Liberty, you get put into the enemy category,” says Stephen Chueka, a 25 year old Suffolk University theater graduate. He would know—he plays Francis Rotch, the 23-year-old captain of one of those ships, and so he suffers a fair amount of the verbal abuse leveled during the program. “In some ways that can almost incense them to go into the enemy category, if they’ve got [you] against the wall,” he says. 

What happened next is now the stuff of legend. Having exhausted their legal options, a group of angry men disguised themselves as Mohawk Native Americans, stormed to Griffin’s Wharf, and—in a show of white hot Bostonian fury seen today only when the Patriots lose and cyclists blow through red lights—they dumped 342 chests of British tea right into Boston Harbor.

It’s a nice reminder that, far from the genteel decorum of a John Trumbull painting, the Revolutionary era was much like ours: blustery, bombastic, partisan.

“The calls for civility in the public discourse?  That’s nothing new,” Cooke shrugs.

O’Shaughnessy points out that familiar, too, are the polarizing personalities that dominate electoral politics (I’m sure we can all think of one or two.)  

“There have been demagogues before, there will be demagogues again,” he says. “There will be politicians who warp facts, create complete falsehoods, things of that nature. There are also good men.”

There's a certain depth and appreciation for nuance that can come to a person's understanding of history from living—albeit temporarily—inside it. But it can cut both ways. 

For example, Joe Brown is a newspaper photographer from Woburn who reenacts with a group called Gardner’s Regiment, which regularly stages battles from the Revolutionary War.  His two sons, ages 18 and 20, have started joining him on the field. When he sees them, sometimes he can't help but think about what it would be like if they were going to war today—in real life—in Afghanistan or Iraq.

“We are sending 18 year olds to be on the front line,” he says. “You have to wonder what their families are going through and what they’re thinking. Like I say, we’re just playing at it, but that’s the real thing. It’s going on every day."

“There’s definitely mixed emotions,” he continues.  

That's one of the most unexpected things about reenacting. It can cast light on the complexities of the past, sure. But it can also cast light, sometimes a very bright light (uncomfortably bright, almost), on the complexities of the present.

Matt Mees, who reenacts frequently with his wife, Liz, believes this. In between describing his handmade costume and giving an impromptu review to "In The Heart Of The Sea" (both he and Liz give it a thumbs up) he ticks off a list of issues from 1773 that could be ripped straight from the headlines today—class stratification, a desire for greater autonomy in the states, consumers' over-reliance on credit. The more things change, the more things stay the same. 

“It gives comfort to know that the arguments I hear are the same arguments…that are taking place as far back as us, in ’73 or ’74 or earlier,” Mees says. “We survived that. We can survive this.”