by Wendy Rosenfield
for the Inquirer
Quick: what do you think when you see the title of Curio Theatre's world premiere Gender Comedy: A Less Stupid Twelfth Night Gay Fantasia? Whatever you pictured, drag, slapstick, high camp in the Ludlam and Busch-style, you're right. But for Philly-bred first-time playwright and Curio company member Harry Slack, while this isn't exactly a bait-and-switch scheme, it's certainly akin to catch-and-release, complete with profound existential reckoning. (there's a mid-show "fish fight"; it's an apt analogy.)
Shakespeare's cross-dressing comedy is having a reinvention moment right now, and not just because it's Christmastime. Around these parts, alongside Curio's production, Pig Iron remounted its Balkan-influenced version, and Shakespeare's Globe brought Mark Rylance's moving Countess to Broadway. Slack's script, however, diverges from these productions with a deconstructed and streamlined story.
As a hilariously deadpan Clown, Slack summarizes it all in a few terse sentences--the shipwreck, Viola's abrupt decision to dress like a man and work as the Duke's servant, everyone's subsequent sexual identity crises. He dispatches with the B plot because it's "boring," and ends with Shakespeare's bafflingly contradictory finale: "They all lived happily ever after. [Pause] I will be revenged on you all."
Thus free to focus on the larger issues, Shakespeare's characters and their misleading missives act as conduits for examinations of existence, language and connection, much as Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern did, but with a fembot and volley of stuffed trout. Anyway, for Slack, the play is still the thing, but he's also interested in its relation to philosophers such as Alfred Korzybski, who famously said, "The word is not the thing." (Think of Magritte's pipe, and you'll be on the right track.)
Paul Kuhn directs with an eye toward facilitating Slack's ideas. This work declares music the food of love, and Josh Hitchens' drag alter ego Lavinia Loveless makes a surprisingly steady metronome as gartered, pink-haired, repp-tied Viola. And among a cast with varying degrees of experience (though they're all plenty of fun) Mercedes Lyons-Cox's little orphan sailor boy Oliver--you may know him/her better as Viola's lost twin Sebastian--stands out for combining gee-whiz earnestness with soliloquy-ready skills.
Kuhn's set design consists of bare hanging lightbulbs, multicolored squares of construction paper, some streamers and a few stackable wooden pallets. The better to illuminate this "improbable fiction," which, though packed full of ideas, only runs 90 minutes, "with a 10 second intermission." It's a rare thing to find a first-time playwright who manages to combine an over-the-top script with less-is-more discipline; it's even rarer to see one take on Shakespeare and win.
Playing at: Calvary Center for Culture and Community, 4740 Baltimore Ave. Through Sunday, Jan. 5. Tickets: $15 to $25. Information: 215-525-1350 or CurioTheatre.org