West Philadelphia’s Curio Theatre has committed to gender-bending Shakespeare this year. Following this fall’s Romeo and Juliet, in which both of the doomed lovers were ladies, Curio now gives us a balder offering in Gender Comedy: A Less Stupid Twelfth Night Gay Fantasia. This one sticks to the bare outlines of the original 400-year old production, while shedding the Elizabethan wording: Twins are spewed up from a shipwreck, separately, onto the shores of an alien land where they must make their way and, inevitably, fall in love. (It’s a comedy, after all; all those end in marriage.)
Gender Comedy seems like an idea hashed out, laboriously, by a bunch of stoned friends. But unlike a joke elaborately pasted together from the mental detritus of inebriates, the play is (mostly) funny even if you weren’t in at the making. Still, theatergoers who like their Shakespeare staid and courtly should steer clear. It’s the right place “to come see a show that runs for around an hour and is fun to watch,” says the playwright, Harry Slack, who also plays Sir Toby Fart and The Clown. The age of the audience the night I attended— say, about 27— reflected this general cleavage. (At most plays I’ve seen in Philadelphia, the median age has skewed towards, say, 67.)
It’s not as though the target of Slack’s comedy doesn’t deserve it. Comedy ages notoriously poorly (although Oscar Wilde is still holding his own), and Shakespeare’s comedies are about as funny as those of Euripides. The actual version of Twelfth Night in Philadelphia this season—by Pig Iron, last show on the 22nd— addresses this challenge by working wonders with costume, set and physical comedy. (The play itself also holds up better than most of Shakespeare’s other comedies.) But the actual plot of Twelfth Night makes absolutely no sense. Why wouldn’t a noblewoman, washed up on friendly shores, simply ask the resident Duke for some dry clothes, instead of performing an elaborate ruse, pretending to be a man and working as his servant? In Gender Comedy, by contrast, one of the twins goes to see a performance of Twelfth Night and is utterly, and justifiably, baffled.
Because few of the original play’s jibes still work for a modern audience, Slack has basically replaced them all with a steady stream of vomit, cross-dressing and sex robot jokes. Gender Comedy doesn’t work as well when it tries to shed the sophomoric and absurd. Its attempts to mimic Beckett-style absurdity are painful. One long (and I mean really long) monologue by Merci Lyons-Cox drags on to an almost unbearable degree. It’s like one of those jokes that’s meant to be funny and then, as time ticks away, becomes unfunny, only to elicit laughs again by the sheer longevity of the telling. But this one wasn’t funny, or even interesting, to begin with.
Almost everyone in the cast does double duty or more. Olivia is written in such a gratingly awful fashion that it’s impossible to enjoy her scenes, but Dana Kreitz is a great time in her other two roles. The same cannot be said of Lavinia Loveless, also known as Josh Hitchens, who plays the gender-confused lead. It’s Lavinia’s first acting gig, and she’s still a little stiff. Patrick Lamborn steals the show as the flamboyantly gay and insistently straight Duke Orson and his cardboard (literally) attendants, who are both named Jeremy.
Gender Comedy is the kind of experiment that’s worth trying. A young playwright sends up a classic so firmly enthroned that no number of slings and arrows will ever unseat it. Slack’s play is a fine way to kill an hour, and it’s certainly better than a boring, pompous production in thrall to some Harold Bloom ideal of the The Bard. The audience’s youthful age seems to show the fruits of such an approach. In the future, let’s hope, the experiments will be more consistently enjoyable.