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 picture - drag, slapstick, high camp - you're right. But for Philly-bred first-time playwright and Curio company member Harry Slack, though 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. In these parts, alongside Curio's production, Pig Iron remounted its Balkan-influenced version, and Shakespeare's Globe brought Mark Rylance's moving Countess Olivia to Broadway. Slack's script, however, diverges from these productions with a deconstructed, streamlined story.
Slack, as a hilariously deadpan Clown, summarizes it all in a few sentences - the shipwreck, Viola's decision to dress like a man and work as the Duke's servant, everyone's sexual-identity crises. He dispenses 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 larger issues, the 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 a volley of stuffed trout. For Slack, the play is still the thing, but he's also interested in its relation to philosophers such as Alfred Korzybski, who said, "The word is not the thing." (Think of René 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 pink-haired, repp-tied Viola. And Mercedes Lyons-Cox's little orphan 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 hanging lightbulbs, multicolored construction-paper squares, streamers, and some stackable pallets, illuminating this "improbable fiction," which runs only 90 minutes, "with a 10-second intermission." It's rare 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.
Gender Comedy: A Less Stupid Twelfth Night Gay Fantasia
Presented by Curio Theatre Company, 48th Street and Baltimore Avenue, through Jan. 4.
Information: 215-525-1350 and www.curiotheatre.org