A gender bender in verse, “Swollen Tongues” is an attempt both to send up Restoration comedy and to be the main cheering section for lesbianism. Playwright Kathleen Oliver seems intent on pointing out that nothing is entirely as it seems. Love, lust and sexuality are movable feasts. Cross-dressing, crossing time periods or changing the focus of passion are equally likely at any moment.
Siblings Thomas (James Gilbert) and Catherine (Maureen Smith), both would-be poets, lust for the same woman, Sonja (Sarah McVie), and compete for her through their versifying. She enjoys the rivalry for her favors but her sexual orientation is undecided at first. Meanwhile, the poets’ cross-dressing tutor, Alex (Patricia Tedford), craves a liaison with Catherine. Because the comedy is presented as a fairy tale, all ends happily with the four paired as they wish.
In line with the quirkiness of the slight plot, the iambic pentameter/rhyming couplet format frequently drops into contemporary lingo, jarring somewhat with costumes and wigs that are more in line with the 17th century.
Sometimes witty, but more often focused on promoting lesbianism, “Swollen Tongues” works hard at being a frothy comedy with underlying meaning. The result is a carefully constructed work with limited rather than universal appeal.
Under Kate Hurman’s sure direction, McVie, as the lascivious Sonja, and Gilbert, as the lovelorn Thomas, camp it up to good effect. Smith as Catherine plays it straight as she falls for one after another of two same-sex lovers, while Tedford unwinds to move smoothly from being Alex the male poetry tutor to Alex, the female worshipper of Sappho, in love with Catherine.
Meanwhile, Lorenzo Savoini’s interesting sets — all black-and-white lines, moving from cramped and closed to uneven floor and oddly angled doors stretching into the distance — emphasize that all is rarely as it seems at first sight.