What They Say It Is:
Admit it. Shakespeare’s comedies are stupid. Like Twelfth Night. Everybody knows it needs robots. Well, now it’s got ‘em! We have gender confusion, needlessly cruel drunks, and cyborgs. It’s the play Queen Elizabeth I never wanted you to see!
We’ve seen the Twelfth Night performed live before (most recently, I think, in 2006 at Shakespeare in Clark Park), and I personally have read this play multiple times, both for school and entertainment. As traditionally performed, 12N is a fairly funny, intentionally confusing, and ridiculously “zany” plot. Curio Theater’s take on this holiday standard mutates a classic Shakespeare comedy and pushes it to new levels of oddity. This “perfect for West Philly” reinterpretation includes moments of inspired humor, some juvenile silliness, and an unabashed inclination to mock the Bard’s script. Overall, the show works for a light evening of lowbrow humor. I can’t pretend there were things I wouldn’t have changed, or that I loved every minute–but it was good enough to entertain, without a doubt. High theater, this is not—but if you didn’t figure this out from the title alone, then you’re probably not a ready-for-Shakespeare audience.
The show demands a fair amount of familiarity with the source material—I’d pity anyone coming to Curio’s version with no working knowledge of the original play. This modern re-imagining is an unapologetic roller-coaster of jokes that stem directly out of Shakespeare’s goofy plot—twin siblings, gender switching via disguises, and convoluted love triangles. Strangely akin to the “throw it all in the pot and see what happens” sensibilities of modern television (think the ribald insanity of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia or Arrested Development), the plot almost writes itself—there are enough moving parts and strange characters that humor is guaranteed. The Bard’s original script is silly—this new take is completely mad. The inspiration for A Less Stupid Twelfth . . . was clearly a genuine, legitimate reaction to the madcap nonsense Shakespeare put into his comedies. Here, by turning up the dial to 11, the classic story becomes a nutcase parody, swirled together with the gender politics of modern day.
This leads me to what is essentially a complaint about the writing for the show—though I laughed plenty, and had a thoroughly good time, a bit more hand-holding for the audience (with respect to the original storyline) was needed. The program brochure didn’t offer much help (though the rules for Fish Fighting?! were indubitably entertaining), and the show was well underway before any sort of parenthetical source-material summary was attempted–surely leaving some audience members to feel simply, well, lost. Even when the characters obliquely discussed the “actual” plot that they were parodying, it was handled in such a rapid-fire fashion that an audience member would probably need to have to known the plot to understand it—a theatrical Catch-22. Simply put, even as someone quite familiar with the essential story, I spent a fair amount of time trying to decipher the parody or to even understand what was happening on stage. To my eye, Sebastian and Viola (supposedly twins) looked almost nothing alike, the show never fully explains the roles of the duke and the countess (here reduced to prancing fairy boy and whiny prima donna), and so the essential plot complications of the love triangles felt like they were happening in a kind of contextual vacuum—you’ve got plenty over-the-top characters acting crazy, but too little foundation.
At least that was my take on it. Confusion notwithstanding, once I got used to the tenor of this show, I did laugh a fair bit. If one simply gave up worrying about Shakespeare’s narrative and simply regarded the show through the lens of Monty Python’s oeuvre, you found yourself having a much better time. Most notable to me was Toby “Fart” (originally Toby “Belch”) who was played by Harry Slack (also the show’s author). A Curio Theater veteran, Mr. Slack delivered his role of the fool with confidence and humor. He’s a naturally funny actor (as seen before in The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Accidental Death of an Anarchist) and one of my favorite members of the troupe. Other players were acceptable in their roles (especially considering the ‘zany’ context of this unpretentious show), but I couldn’t ignore some creeping annoyance at the ridiculously overwrought character types. Sure, they warned us it’s a GAY comedy, but that doesn’t excuse flat, unimaginative stereotyping. The duke’s character was a fun-yet-over-familiar prissy boy stereotype, Fabian (I think? it was supposed to be Fabian) was a flat, nihilistic complainer, and the countess Olivia was far too adept at imitating a screeching, spoiled, in-the-closet lipstick lesbian–she genuinely annoyed me in at least half her scenes! Though I did get used to these creative character interpretations by the time the show achieved its mid-act rhythm, I was wincing at some of the earlier sections, afraid that this staging would turn out to be Curio’s stinker.
Curio Theater’s Accidental Death of An Anarchist (featuring Harry Slack)
Thankfully, I can honestly say that this staging WASN’T a stinker, but then again, the set design was very low budget and the intentions were obviously modest. It felt like the kind of show where the aspirations were exactly in line with the results–as the name implied, this was meant as a romp, not high art. I have a saying for when I leave a show of this type, and it’s fully applicable here . . . . “Good times, good times”.
We’ve seen several truly amazing shows at Curio–along with a small number of well-intentioned failures. This company does a lot with a little, tends to exceed limits of space and budgets, and typically manages to send us home feeling that our money was well-spent. This show probably falls somewhere in the middle of my Curio experiences . . . while it was probably unfair for me to expect refinement from A Less Stupid Twelfth Night Gay Fantasia, the season and the source material nevertheless imply a certain element of classic theater. In the end, I was pleased with what we saw, glad we took a chance on this production, but in my estimation, the show is best classified as “a fun outing” rather than “unforgettably mindblowing”.