It's odd to think of William Shakespeare writing a Christmas play in the same way Hollywood studios release their holiday blockbusters. Yet Twelfth Night, or What You Will, was just that in 1602 - a popular, fanciful entertainment marking the end of Christmas' 12 days and the coming of the Epiphany.
There is a noble yet hilarious dreaminess to the play's proceedings - psychic bait-and-switches and twists-upon-truths, wherein servants imagine they can become lords, and ladies dress as men for the sake of romance and, of course, high comedy.
"In Twelfth Night, Viola asks the Clown for his reason for speaking, to which the Clown responds, 'Troth, sir, I can yield you none without words; and words are grown so false, I am loth to prove reason with them,' " quotes Harry Slack, the Curio Theatre Company playwright whose Gender Comedy: A Less Stupid Twelfth Night Gay Fantasia is one of two takes on the play running on Philadelphia stages. "That line illuminates the pitfalls of using words to reflect reality. But I don't know . . . it's done with words, which, as the Clown says, 'are grown so false.' How fun is that?"
Dippy jocularity and quirky ludicrousness also fuel Pig Iron Theatre Company's mix of amped-up skate punks, buoyant Baltic musicians, slapstick, and '70s polyester-clad schemers, adding up to a grander staging of the company's original 2011 LiveArts Festival offering.
"There's so much partying in Twelfth Night," says Pig Iron boss Quinn Bauridel. "It's the perfect cocktail of melancholy and raucousness."
(Synopsis of plot impossible to synopsize: Twins Viola and Sebastian are shipwrecked off Illyria, where Duke Orsino pines for the remote Olivia. Sebastian seems to have drowned, so spunky Viola dresses as a man, calls herself Cesario, and signs on with Orsino as his page, soon falling in love with him. He sends her to plead his case with Olivia, who immediately falls for the handsome page. Sebastian turns up, and she marries him, thinking he's Cesario - twins, remember? Orsino comes to his senses when Cesario/Viola is revealed to be a woman. Pranks are played, the dour Malvolio gets his comeuppance, and lots of people get married.)
"Twelfth Night is ridiculous in the warmest, most intelligent of ways, just as we are so often," says Carmen Khan, artistic director of the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre, which presented it in 2003 and 2012. She finds it an exquisite exploration of man's ability to delude himself, "especially in regards to romantic desire."
Placing it in historical context, Khan notes that the traditional Twelfth Night holiday, signifying the end of the Christmas season and with roots in the pre-Christian Saturnalia, is overseen by the Lord of Misrule, so there was no way this play could have avoided being a mess of gender mixups and tall tales.
"Everything was turned on its head then," Khan says. "Women dressed as men, men as women, and confusion and turnaround provided the excitement."
As far as excitement goes, where the gay-centric Curio production toys with Twelfth Night's language and gender codes from the inside out, Pig Iron plays on the physicality of its boy-girl switcheroos and messy truths, with great emphasis on its musicality.
"The famous line, 'If music be the food of love, play on,' has much in it," says Pig Iron's Bauridel of his company's decision to tackle the play - that and the influence of Bosnian-born director Emir Kusturica's 1995 black comedy, Underground.
Balkan music courses through the movie, and "Dan Rothenberg, our director, imagined a play in which music is the motor behind everything," Bauridel says. "Throughout Underground, parties are brawls, reality is somehow always fiction, melancholy and euphoria flip instantly."
Thus, Underground, an absurdist history of modern Yugoslavia, inspired not only this Twelfth Night's music, but its gypsy costuming and its reveling in drunkenness and misery "while searching for a love that is hard to find," Bauridel muses.
As for gender-bending, the androgynous Sarah Sanford pulled it off in 2011 as Viola, and Kristen Sieh does it now. Bauridel enjoys the idea of being in disguise, transgressing one's gender, and battling with one's inner desires. Despite cruel jokes and cross-dressing, "the misplaced libido and the idiot savants, Twelfth Night posits that love is stronger than all," he says. "After the pain of being rejected or falling for wrong people, love triumphs. Love, in fact, is not blind."
In addition to the flip-flopping of Shakespeare's language, Curio's Slack cites gender and "sexuality confusion" as reasons to parody the play.
"So, in Twelfth Night, Viola is a girl pretending to be a boy," he says. "For me, this has always begged the question: Is Duke Orsino a little gay? Also, is Olivia a little gay? Orsino kind of falls in love with a guy. Olivia kind of falls in love with a girl.
"Sure, they all end up with their 'appropriate' sexes and genders, but come on: They're a little gay, right? So that's a running gag that was fun to play with."
In rewriting the Bard, Slack figured the dead couldn't stop him, so Gender Comedy: A Less Stupid Twelfth Night Gay Fantasia happily exacerbates the original's gender confusion by making it unclear what sex Viola and her brother are.
"In my play, Viola is played by a man, while Oliver - which is the new name for Sebastian - is played by a woman," Slack says. "Halfway through the show, Viola seems to have no clue what her sex or gender is. So everything is muddied and confusing, which is fun to watch."
"Language truly has failed" his characters, Slack says with a giggle. "Viola's first scene boils down to, 'Well, my brother's dead, and it's hard to get work, so I guess I'll pretend to be a boy now.' It's nonsense. I love it."
Beyond the muddles and loop-de-loop language, Twelfth Night is a celebration that's meant to enthrall as well as confuse.
"The piece is accessible to the widest audience - so much humor to draw you in, with questions about love, redemption, fate, and the bittersweetness of life," Bauridel says. "There are many holiday cliches. Twelfth Night is an antidote to those, while warming the soul on a winter's night."
Twelfth Night, or What You Will
Presented by Pig Iron Theatre Company at FringeArts, Columbus Avenue at Race Street, through Dec. 22.
Information: 215-413-9006 and www.pigiron.org
Gender Comedy: A Less Stupid Twelfth Night Gay Fantasia
Presented by Curio Theatre Company, 48th Street and Baltimore Avenue, Thursday through Jan. 4.
Information: 215-525-1350 and www.curiotheatre.org