For those interested in exploring gender dynamics – like the Curio Theatre, as per the mission statement of their ongoing ninth season – productions based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or What You Will are an obvious choice. Of these, Gender Comedy: A Less Stupid Twelfth Night Gay Fantasia is probably less obvious, but this intriguing parody makes some bold claims about sexuality, theatrical conventions, Shakespeare’s language, and robots.
Playwright Harry Slack has moved the setting to modern-day Hylaria, a land of restrictive social conventions, existential ennui, and meticulously regulated fish fights that is populated by broad (though usually recognizable) caricatures of the characters from Twelfth Night. The shipwrecked Viola (Lavinia Loveless, drag alter-ego of Josh Hitchens), tragically bereft of her parents and “identical” twin brother Oliver, takes the advice of a random drunk lady and dresses up like a man for lack of a better option. She ends up in the employment of the transparently-closeted Orson (Patrick Lamborn), who is seeking the hand of the grief- and boy(?)-crazed socialite Olivia (Dana Krietz) in marriage sight unseen, also apparently for lack of a better option. Olivia’s deadbeat uncle Toby Fart (Harry Slack) and nihilistic BFF Andy (Lesley Berkowitz) briefly pause in their drinking to torment Olivia’s devoted butler Melvin (Lamborn) with a cruel illusion of love in the form of the Olivia-Bot. Meanwhile, a similarly shipwrecked Oliver (Mercedes Lyons-Cox) wanders around the city in the company of the murderously devoted Miss Antonia (Krietz), catching a one-man show by the Clown (Slack) about a certain gender-bending Shakespearean comedy and extemporizing about semiotics, deconstructivist theory, and the enduring popularity of the Bard (William Shakespeare) himself.
Despite the production's title – Gender Comedy:A Less Stupid Twelfth Night Gay Fantasia – it sometimes fails to make the case that it is either being sarcastic or genuinely less stupid. Its plot is remarkably faithful to Twelfth Night, and while Twelfth Night is no Die Hard (as Oliver so memorably puts it) it seems safe to say that any play featuring the line “If this were played upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an improbable fiction!” is probably not intended to be taken completely seriously; Gender Comedy’s habit of pointing out that an intentionally ridiculous plot is ridiculous is not in itself clever. And while Gender Comedy features genderqueering, cross-dressing, and robosexual attraction, in most cases it is merely making Shakespeare’s subtext text. Viola/Cesario’s gender confusion and experimentation along with Orsino and Olivia’s subsequent bewildered attraction are all present in Twelfth Night, with Gender Comedy doing little to expand upon them besides making them explicit. Cross-dressing, of course, was a staple of Elizabethan theater. Furthermore, by making Antonio female, Gender Comedy is actually less gay in some ways: though both Antonia and Oliver are played by women, Antonia’s intense relationship with Oliver is cast more in terms of a(n albeitly kind of creepy) motherly connection instead of Antonio and Sebastian’s homoerotic one. The robots are, admittedly, unique.
Part of the problem arises from the play’s privileging of Shakespeare’s command of language over his other abilities. This is praised while his plots are mocked; his character work, meanwhile, is almost completely ignored. Viola, though sassily played by Loveless, is identifiable by her name (and cross-dressing) only, her lines retaining little of the original character’s quick wit, charisma, and constant (occasionally hare-brained) scheming. While Gender Comedy’s other characters are more recognizable, they are also greatly simplified, severely limiting the production’s ability to examine Twelfth Night’s many complicated relationships – and by extension, missing the point that the characters Shakespeare created to deliver his soliloquies are equally important to the immortal words they utter.
As a transformative work, Gender Comedy is at its most interesting when it actively engages with Twelfth Night. Viola’s revelation late in the play that she is not a woman dressed up like her brother, but actually is her brother, not only ups the confusion and hilarity of the play’s denouement but also highlights the performative nature of gender itself. It is left entirely ambiguous whether she has simply cracked under pressure or genuinely is Oliver reclaiming his identity (after previously cracking under pressure), with the casting of both twins potentially undermining the theatrical conventions that accept an actor’s performed gender at face value. That this proves ultimately irrelevant to the play’s happy ending is the result of another clever subversion of Twelfth Night. The absurdity of Hylaria’s social norms is a running gag, from the way no one comments on the presence of Jeremy (Orson’s everpresent cardboard cut-outs of Humphrey Bogart and mixed martial artist Thiago Alves) to the vital importance of a proper fish fight (“For every excellent fish slap, the fighter receives a wallop bonus, which results in triple deduction of penalty points”) to the ridiculous legal code (where it is against the law to propose to your employer, but no one is required to lock jail cell doors). The love polygon of Viola-Orson-Olivia-Oliver is finally resolved by a new law from the desk of Jacqueline Beret and her pencil-thin mustache, making it legal to love whomever you want, whereupon the characters throw away their inhibitions and appropriately pair off. It’s a deus ex machina ending that stands in stark contrast to the end of Twelfth Night, where restrictive Elizabethan social conventions are reasserted in the nominally happy ending despite the tension this creates; Gender Comedy, on the other hand, is free to skewer the arbitrariness of its social conventions and then discard them completely, pointing out that they too are merely a construct and not an immutable part of the natural order.
The questioning of identities that Gender Comedy borrows from Twelfth Night is echoed by Aetna Gallagher’s costume design: the strength of each character’s self-delusion may be enough to convince their easily susceptible peers that their actions and dress are appropriate for their role, but their true nature is easily visible to the audience. Toby wears a cravat with a ratty old bathrobe and Olivia’s mourning attire is manifested by a sparkly minidress and lacy tights. Melvin’s top hat, tails, and cummerbund cannot class up his schoolboy shorts just as Orson’s waistcoat and deliberation over the perfect skinny jeans cannot make up for the fact that he never actually manages to keep on a pair of pants. Viola’s blazer and tie cannot conceal that she is still only wearing her heels, garter belt, and corset underneath.
The audacious incongruence of the characters’ costumes works much better than the similarly lampshaded one-dimensional representation of the characters themselves, though the cast’s comedic skills enlivens an otherwise shallow reading of Twelfth Night. In a sock-gartered tour de force, Patrick Lamborn alternates between amusingly synthesizing as many gay stereotypes as possible for his performance as the self-reportedly straight Orson and portraying Melvin as a sweet-natured doormat in what is probably the most adorable rendition of Malvolio in the history of theater. Lesley Berkowitz gets perhaps the most original material, briefly appearing as a drunk and the inexplicable Jacqueline Beret, but primarily playing Andy, a composite of Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Maria, and the depressive end of Feste’s mood swings; her endless succession of bleak one-liners (“Fine, I’ll just stay silent...like God!”) is delivered with enough dark energy to keep them increasingly hilarious, just in time for her to abruptly switch to Andy’s hopeless longing for innocence and love… from the fish in the fish fight. Harry Slack gives Toby Fart a cheerful apathy and Dana Krietz shines as the Olivia-Bot, somehow imbuing a touching humanity into the perfectly mimicked vocal intonations of Stephen Hawking’s speech synthesizer.
Director and set designer Paul Kuhn complements the cast’s antics with a thrust stage configuration festooned with brightly-colored sheets of construction paper, streamers, and hanging light-bulbs, a simple yet effective set-up. Though the windows at the back of the stage are sadly underutilized, the interlocking wooden pallets are cleverly used for the majority of the furniture, providing chairs, tables, and fish fight barricades as needed. Kuhn’s direction is similarly multi-faceted, expertly balancing the play’s wordplay, slapstick, over-the-top characters, and visual gags without taking attention away from the material.
Even when not up to the challenge of engaging with its progenitor, Gender Comedy: A Less Stupid Twelfth Night Gay Fantasia offers a snappy and colorful satire of sexual and social mores, and helps in its own way to combat the tragic lack of robotic representation in the Shakespearean canon. Though a fish fight can only end in despair, the Curio Theatre’s production is screamingly funny right through its conclusion.