All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Samuel Taylor Coleridge had a reason for recommending that people encountering art should learn to suspend their belief and go with the action and logic at hand in a work instead of insisting on total reality or common sense that would knock most literature and practically all operas and ballets right off the reason register.
The romantic poet knew that art can’t bear too precise a scrutiny. Look too close, make too fine a point, and someone is bound to say, “Why didn’t she just tell everyone she was a woman?” or “Well, why isn’t he the king? King’s sons become kings, not king’s brothers!” Someone looking at Gericault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” might wonder, as Julian Barnes does, why the men who by legend resorted to cannibalism look so robust in the painting. Coleridge has an interest in this too. Why did his ancient mariner stoppeth one of three, and not one of two, or five?
Literature elicits questions, but without suspension of disbelief, the questions would be of a rational, concrete kind that would obliterate the conflict, irony, and ambiguity of much art while questions about theme and character tend to illuminate it. Get too logical, and there’s no drama, no play.
Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” could drive a literal (as opposed a literary) person to distraction. It raises oodles of questions directors constantly have to solve. How is it that no one can tell Cesario and Sebastian apart, especially if Cesario is of age but cannot grow a beard, as Orsino and Feste mention? Why doesn’t Viola empathize with Olivia over the loss of her brother when she thinks she lost hers as well? What is it the sea captain admires so much about Sebastian that he is willing to risk his life for him by coming to Illyria? Why indeed, if Sebastian thinks his parents and sister are dead, does he care where the sea captain takes him? Wouldn’t he want to go to Messina and claim his estate?
I can go on. Who can’t? Given the two productions of “Twelfth Night” I’ve seen this month, a formal, stately wonderful production on Broadway and a raucous, free-wheeling production from Pig Iron on Columbus Boulevard, Shakespeare knew how entertain so deftly he didn’t have to worry about such questions or the spin a company puts on his work. He provided so much joy and comedy in his play that, Coleridge or not, the audience will accept the author’s adventure and not examine the details too thoroughly. We can leave that to English teachers.
Harry Slack is not as content as I to leave “Twelfth Night” its conundrums. Or at least he was so much taken with them, he decided to comment on the contradictions and their transparency in his own version of “Twelfth Night” In his dissection of Shakespeare’s comedy, “Gender Comedy: A Less Stupid Twelfth Night Gay Fantasia,” he takes particular interest in the sexual chess going on between the principals. Orsino, called Orson, is flamboyantly gay. Viola, as Cesario, tells Olivia to her face that she is a Lesbian when Olivia cannot contain her ardor in Cesario’s presence. The sea captain makes no pretense about he feels about Sebastian. Andrew Aguecheek, called Andy, is the deadpan logician of the bunch. Viola is played by a barely disguised man from the beginning. Sebastian, called Oliver, is played by a rather pretty woman who doesn’t remotely resemble the gawky, librarianish Viola. Viola pronounces everyone stupid for accepting situations and conventions at face value rather than realizing truth. Andy waxes on endlessly about death and various existential matters. Oliver is a philosopher who has questions and solutions of his own. In the end, “Twelfth Night'” becomes more of a suggestion for a different play rather than a parody of Shakespeare. And Shakespeare is sorely missed.
Slack, who plays the Feste and Toby Belch derivatives (Clown and Toby Fart) in his play, writes some good speeches for Andy and Oliver, and Lesley Berkowitz and Mercedes Lyons-Cox deliver them well, but in general, his “Gender Comedy” is an undisciplined mess that prefers to comment on the contrivances of “Twelfth Night” without much improving on them or sparing its audiences equal or more convoluted perplexities.
Paul Kuhn’s production for Curio Theatre has no discipline or rhythm. It plays as if college students were doing an impromptu send-up of “Twelfth Night.” Slack’s script can be funny, and there are moments of wit and humor in “Gender Comedy,” but many gags, including an extended fish fight that substitutes for the swordplay between Viola and Andrew or Sebastian and Toby in “Twelfth Night,” backfire, being obviously more clever in conception and intention than they are in execution.
Kuhn’s direction has so pace, and Slack’s composition has no elegance or subtlety. Everything is blatant from Orson and Melvin (read Malvolio’s) sexuality, or Viola’s no-nonsense raving, to a new character, a French detective’s, plan to get to the bottom of all the incongruities in Illyria.
Slack clearly sees the anomalies in “Twelfth Night.” He sees all of Shakespeare’s tricks and stratagems. The problem is he is not nearly as clever as the genius whose work he’s mocking. Shakespeare does convince you to suspend disbelief. He does so without making you conscious you’re even doing it. “Twelfth Night” is that felicitous and that good at telling the audience what to expect. Both Viola and Olivia explain their ploys as they practice them. The secondary characters — Maria, Feste, Toby, and Andrew — do the same. Shakespeare lets you in on all the jokes and invites you to watch them play out. Hence, he contrives a comedy.
Slack invites you to nothing. His work is direct and declarative. It has twists and turns but no art. “Gender Comedy” just happens. It makes no attempt to bring its audience to it.
I like spoof. I like it when people see the underpinnings of a work and expose them is a funny, satirical, or parodic manner. “Gender Comedy” has laughs, but few of them are at “Twelfth Night’s” expense. Slack’s best jokes and best passage come when he departs from “Twelfth Night” and has Berkowitz, as Andy, ponder over the meaning of life by talking endlessly and eloquently about death. Other bright moments come when Lyons-Cox, as Oliver, expounds on similar subjects from a more forward thinking and quizzical point of view. All other attempts at send-up are too ham-handed to make their mark.
Viola is disgusted by Olivia’s pretense at mourning even though she is in mourning of the same kind. She has no tolerance for the game Olivia is playing with Orson, although she tells Orson plainly he’s a flaming queen who can only want Olivia as a beard, and tells Olivia that she, Olivia, is a latent Lesbian whose carnal desires for a man being played in a fairly butch manner by a woman (who is played by a man in drag) give her away entirely.
Viola’s stance could be funny and clarifying if it wasn’t written so stridently and delivered in whining, come-on-let’s get on with it tones by Lavinia Loveless, the drag alter ego of Josh Hitchens.
Loveless plays Viola as if she was a bully (not a bull, a bully). She stomps gracelessly across the stage in pumps that belie the character’s disguise and rails at everyone as if she’s in a state of constant exasperation. There’s no humor because there’s no slyness. Slack’s Viola doesn’t take the audience into her confidence as she makes her moves. She just pronounces everything and everybody stupid and puts her hands on her hips and taps her heels until she believe she’s argued people into reason.
Dana Krietz’s Olivia is also without subtlety. The part of “Twelfth Night” that gives Shakespeare play its core is mangled, and in a way that is not smartly parodic or enlightening. Scenes at Olivia’s fall with a thud. You wait with anticipation for Berkowitz’s Andy to show up and share some more of his/her maudlin morbid maunderings.
Patrick Lamborn is more successful with Orson and Melvin. Lamborn gives the most solid performances in ‘Gender Comedy.” In both of his characters, the screaming lover comes out, but Lamborn has a sense of comic timing and proportion. Even when his readings are over the top, they retain a shred of reality and humanity. Orson’s lines are no better than anyone else’s but Lamborn reads them with the right rhythm, so his speeches hit home more than Slack’s, Loveless’s, or Krietz’s. That’s because he has stage presence. His Melvin is also well-judged. Lamborn seems to have a knack for parody, both of his characters and the typical caricature of a raging homosexual, and a gift for presenting language. What Slack has Lamborn say or do might be silly, but Lamborn holds center stage and invites you to watch him. And that is an improvement over most of what happens during “Gender Comedy,” blessedly short at a 90-minute duration.
Frankly, I was looking forward to seeing what Slack and Kuhn, a director who has shown ability as a stager, would do with ‘Twelfth Night.” The answer is simultaneously “not enough” and “too much.” I know Shakespeare’s play well enough to get jokes and see their source. Slack merely pointed out the parts that require suspension of disbelief. He didn’t illuminate them or make them more believable. And Kuhn’s production is all over the place. It needs tightening and intensity.
Luckily, London’s Globe Theatre and Philadelphia’s Pig Iron Theatre treated me to two different but satisfying “Twelfth Nights.” If I need or want a parody, I’ll construct my own.
“Gender Comedy” runs through Saturday, January 4, at the Curio Corner Stage, 48th and Baltimore Avenue, in Philadelphia (an area that becomes increasingly vibrant). Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors) and can be ordered by calling215-525-1350 or 866-811-4111 or going online to www.curiotheatre.org.