"All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players," begins one of Shakespeare's most famous quotes - this one's from one of his comedies, As You Like It. David Greenspan clearly took inspiration from this line for his own gender-bending comic romp, appropriately enough entitled She Stoops to Comedy, which is the inaugural production at the Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp Theater.
Of course, Greenspan didn't stop there with the play, which he not only wrote but directed and is starring in. As You Like It also plays an important part of the story, with Greenspan's character Alexandra (not played in drag) dressing up as man to infiltrate the life of her former lover Alison. She does this by being cast as Orlando in the production of As You Like It Alison is appearing in.
Follow all that? No matter - onstage, it truly does make a sort of blissful theatrical sense, and keeping track of who's who when and where is never more difficult than Greenspan intends. She Stoops to Comedy is, from beginning to end, an examination and deconstruction of theatrical convention, even down to the very level of the script as never seen by the audience.
As conceived by Greenspan, the script of She Stoops to Comedy - and, thus, the very lives of the characters in it - is completely a work in progress, open to reinvention, reinterpretation, and even rewriting at the slightest whim. The line between actor and character is blurred, the distinctions between reality and theatricality are eliminated, and the significance of gender and sexual identity explored from practically every conceivable angle. It frequently feels as if it's a sheer miracle that anyone involved (actors or audience) knows which way is up.
Take, for example, the two characters hilariously portrayed by the brilliant E. Katherine Kerr. One is an archaeologist one moment and a lighting designer the next, as if the scriptwriter kept changing her profession to better suit the story of the play, yet all the connections remain intact as the play moves forward, leaving the characters to pick up the slack in the continuity. Her other character is a consummate actress unsure of her own relationship to the real or imagined audience, and just happens to be Kerr's first character's former lover. Plenty of jokes about the difficulty or impossibility of the two meeting ensue, yet Greenspan is never hindered by the impossible. Nor is Kerr, thankfully.
Among the other interesting theatrical devices: Another character (played by a subdued yet effective T. Ryder Smith) gives an extended meta-speech about homosexual characters in theatre, one character (the underutilized Mia Barron) is named Eve Addaman solely for the purpose of creating a humorous exchange every time it's mentioned, and perhaps the most pivotal scene in the play is described entirely through stage directions.
What does all this add up to? Aside from a great deal of confusion and some hearty laughter, not much. The set (by Michael Brown) is the stage of the theater, which always seems to contain a bed whether it's needed or not, the costumes by Miranda Hoffman and the lighting by Matthew Frey supporting the theatrical conceit of the story. But aside from the gimmick of having a great gimmick, and getting to show off the talents of the remarkable Kerr and everyone else at holding all the threads together, She Stoops to Comedy doesn't go many places As You Like It and any number of other shows haven't.
She Stoops to Comedy, at least, is consistently funny, and its performers are excellent in what could easily have been a bewildering set of roles. Still, infrequent, casual, or easily-confused theatregoers may want to steer clear - it requires, uses, and is used by the art form of the theatre itself, and will most appeal to those with a strong connection to, or an affinity for, it.