Friday, August 28, 2015

Review: Gender Comedy: A Less Stupid Twelfth Night Gay Fantsia

Gender Comedy: A Less Stupid Twelfth Night Gay Fantasia, reviewed by Wendy Rosenfield, produced by Curio Theatre, written by Harry Slack, directed by Paul Kuhn, featuring Josh Hitchens, Mercedes Lyons-Cox

Review: Gender Comedy: A Less Stupid Twelfth Night Gay Fantsia


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

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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