The problem with reimagining Shakespeare is that his imagination usually stays a few steps ahead of yours. Just in the past few months, I've seen Twelfth Night rewritten as an erotic melodrama in verse and The Tempest repositioned as a critique of 17th-century patriarchy. In each case, I would've preferred even a mediocre version of the original.
She Stoops to Comedy, the new production at SF Playhouse, is much better than either of those shows. But once the play ended, it didn't stick with me. What stuck with me was the desire to reread Shakespeare's As You Like It, the 1599 comedy that serves as the basis for David Greenspan's smart script. There's obviously no shame in creating a good play that isn't nearly as good as one of Shakespeare's best. But a modern-day homage should somehow emerge from the shadow of its source material, and by that standard Greenspan doesn't quite succeed.
In As You Like It's most famous speech, the melancholy Jaques gripes that "All the world's a stage/And all the men and women merely players." Greenspan takes that up a notch: "The whole world's a fuckin' drag show," he tells us, more or less describing his play's theme. Whereas Shakespeare often employs gender-bending in times of crisis — As You Like It's Rosalind dresses as a boy upon her exile to the Forest of Arden, and Twelfth Night's Viola does the same after a shipwreck in a strange land — Greenspan sees gender as a matter of everyday contrivance, with men and women enacting the roles they think they were meant to perform. In the world of She Stoops to Comedy, life "feels like one endless play," the characters openly acknowledging the fact that they are reciting lines from a script. (When one character contradicts herself, she explains that the contradiction arises from "an earlier draft.")
The play's title derives from She Stoops to Conquer, the 1773 comedy of manners by Oliver Goldsmith. (Like much of Greenspan's humor, the title is a throwaway joke for theater geeks; the dialogue is thick with theatrical references, some of them pretty obscure.) The plot's a bit of a mess — it is, after all, based on one of Shakespeare's most loosely plotted comedies — and Greenspan manages to burn through an awful lot of romantic entanglements in just 80 rapid-fire minutes. Distraught after a breakup with her girlfriend, Alison (Sally Clawson), the actress Alexandra (Liam Vincent) decides she's done playing tragic roles. ("I'm fed up with Phaedra," she says. "Why does she not just get over it?") She cuts her hair and dresses up like a man named Harry Samson — apparently we're meant to think of the biblical Samson losing his hair, and his power, to the cunning of Delilah — and decides to pursue a role in a romantic comedy opposite her ex. The comedy, as it turns out, is an out-of-town production of As You Like It, performed in the wilds of Maine (doubling for Shakespeare's Forest of Arden).
The ensemble of the show-within-the-show includes an embittered gay guy named Simon (Scott Capurro), cast to play the fool Touchstone, and a society-page lesbian named Jayne (Amy Resnick) who's in love with the butch lighting designer (also played by Resnick). The director (Cole Alexander Smith) is a self-important buffoon currently sleeping with his assistant Eve (Carly Cioffi), who — in one of the play's less subtle touches — is set to play the role of Adam, Shakespeare's wise old man.
All of this is both hugely imaginative and hugely complicated (think Tom Stoppard without the formal discipline), and it's one of those rare cases where I would've liked another 30 minutes for the characters to develop. What's missing most of all is a character who can match (or at least approximate) the depth and charm of Shakespeare's Rosalind. Greenspan's Alison/Rosalind is a cipher. His heroine Alexandra never quite engaged my sympathies. The Jayne-and-Kay romance is more of a gimmick than anything else, and the straight couple occupies the play's single boring scene.
That leaves us with Capurro's Simon, who delivers the show's most electrifying moment. Could it be significant that the play's best speech is also its least funny one? At about the 60-minute mark, Simon gets the stage to himself, and his monologue is worthy of Jaques' darkest complaints. Identifying himself as "the stereotype of a self-loathing homosexual," he excoriates himself for embodying, despite his best intentions, even the most tiresome gay clichés. He retires drunkenly to his hotel room, waking in the morning to take another handful of HIV meds. Set amidst a riot of sexual shenanigans, the monologue is a bleak retreat from the play's otherwise comic vision: Greenspan, like his heroine, might just be well-suited for tragedy.
Shakespeare ends As You Like It as the genre demanded at the time — with a wedding, or rather four of them. Greenspan's ending is more open-ended than that, in keeping with his theme. "I could close the door," Alexandra tells us as she leaves the stage, "but I think it's more interesting to leave it open." The problem here is that the fluidity of gender becomes an excuse for the shapelessness of Greenspan's work. It's fine to leave things open, just as it's fine to decide that the terms "masculine" and "feminine" simply don't apply to you. But leaving things open is no reason to leave them feeling unfinished.