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I, Malvolio

‘Is This the Kind of Thing You Like?’ It Is

By Tim Crouch
New Victory Theater, The Duke on 42nd Street, New York, N.Y.
Saturday, January 19, 2013, B-104&105 (center)
Directed by Karl James and A. Smith

[One weekend in New York City, three Shakespeare-themed one-man shows. They have only one common thread: They feature a single talented actor in an engaging play. In fact, the primary commonality of the three shows is how different they are, each representing completely different performance styles and each offering a totally different perspective on Shakespeare's plays: an actor's, a minor character's, and a modern counterpart to the titular character's. The first and last are, respectively, In Acting Shakespeare and Hamlet, Prince of Grief. Here's the minor character's.]

In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Malvolio is a bully who is tricked into thinking the Countess Olivia loves him, and his subsequent behavior leads to his being imprisoned for insanity. Malvolio’s version of the story, as told by Tim Crouch in I, Malvolio, is that Sir Toby Belch is the bully, everybody else is insane, and we the audience are complicit. “Find that funny, do you?” Crouch’s Malvolio sneers at us. “That the kind of thing you find funny?” The answer to that is kind of complicated, but not for want of laughing.

Malvolio in tattered long johns, skull cap with horns, turkey wattle around his chin, and yellow stockings on his feet
Tim Crouch in I, Malvolio. Photo by Matthew Andrews, The New Victory Theater.

With his hilarious hourlong one-man show, Crouch walks a theatrical tightrope without a safety net. He would have done much just to give us Malvolio’s version of Twelfth Night, which in his eyes is not the comedy we think it is. However, Crouch ups the ante by having his Malvolio not only implicate the audience but involve us, too (two children even take part in his attempted suicide). So, a warning if you plan to see this show: don’t arrive late, don’t text on your cell phone, don’t fall asleep, and be cognizant of where you let your hands rest—he’ll even single you out for the clothes you're wearing. The more he berates, the more we laugh, and the more we laugh, the more Crouch's Malvolio lays on the guilt.

Crouch, who has tread the boards in many professional productions, including playing Malvolio in an upstate New York production of Twelfth Night in 2001, has made his biggest impact as a thespian in children’s theater. Most notable are his series of Shakespeare adaptations in which he tackles the plays through the eyes of a minor character: I, Caliban (The Tempest); I, Peaseblossom (A Midsummer Night’s Dream); I, Banquo (Macbeth); and his latest, I, Cinna (the poet who has a half dozen lines before being torn to pieces by the mob in Julius Caesar), which recently completed its debut run at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I, Malvolio was commissioned by and debuted at the Brighton Festival in 2010 and has since toured the United Kingdom and played in Italy, Singapore, and at the Stanislavski Festival in Moscow. It’s taking up a short residence with the New Victory Theater in New York.

Children’s show? With an actor spending a good deal of his stage time wearing only a leopard-print thong, repeatedly insulting the audience, and attempting suicide? The show is advertised as appropriate for ages 11 and up, and the ’tweens and teens in the audience certainly enjoyed the visual humor of that thong and the madman get-up Crouch wears at the start of the play. Many also seemed familiar enough with Twelfth Night to appreciate the jokes in Malvolio’s assessment of the events in that play. I'm also pretty sure the kids got I, Malvolio's overarching message, which Crouch delivers in sledgehammer manner: bullying is bad.

“Who laughed? Is that what they teach you? To laugh at people, people older than yourself, people less fortunate than yourself, Christian people, people with dignity and bearing and loyalty and a sense of self-respect and decency? Yes?” But the whole time he chastises the audience for laughing at “such a funny man,” Crouch IS such a funny man, wearing tattered, fly-infested long johns (his thonged rear visible through a rip in the back), a skull cap with devil horns, a turkey wattle strapped under his chin, and a sign stuck to his back that says “Turkey Cock.” On his feet, he's wearing filthy yellow stockings. Over the course of the play, Malvolio changes into his steward’s uniform of white shirt, cravat, vest, white stockings, handsome shoes, and coat with tails, assisted by members of the audience, usually kids. And he harangues them as they do so.

As the bullying theme comes at us from Malvolio's preaching, it also arises within us as a self-reflection, for as Crouch challenges us to laugh at his Malvolio we realize we laughed at him being notoriously abused in Twelfth Night. Yet, bullying is more multidimensional than Malvolio cares to admit. He concludes his rant about how we laugh at people for being different with one of Malvolio’s signature lines from the play: “You are idle, shallow things. I am not of your element.” It reminds us that Malvolio himself is a bully, not only in the way he berates us here but in Twelfth Night, too, especially toward Maria. He may not have laughed at people who were different from him, but he certainly disparaged them. Notably, Crouch’s Malvolio makes little mention of Maria, though she wrote the incriminating letter.

Instead, he focuses his ire (what he doesn't expend on us) on Belch, “a rudesby and unruly and unchristian and bullying and boorish and drunk and idiotic and foul and stinking and heathen and a little bit like—YOU. Yes! Do you see yourself in that description?” It’s a pivotal point in the play, a collision of the bullies (especially if we are likened to Belch). Bullying is intolerance in action, and it happens not only on the playgrounds and in the school hallways, it happens in the field of politics and the halls of Congress, on talk radio and reality TV, in pass-along e-mails and blog posts. All of us either engage in it or encourage it to some degree.

Given that through Shakespeare’s pen we see the perspective of Belch (along with Maria, Fabian, and the Fool), Crouch now gives us Malvolio’s perspective, a backstory not only for the steward but the estate he has served since Olivia’s father was alive. He makes a point: With the death of her father and then her brother, Olivia decrees seven years of mourning, allowing the estate to fall into disorder, especially with the arrival and subsequent residency of Belch. Malvolio was just trying to do his job, following the policy of somberness that Olivia had established. Of course, Olivia herself was transitioning out of that state with the arrival of the Duke’s young messenger, Cesario, aka Viola, and Crouch's Malvolio admits he didn't notice the change. That's because he's never known happiness—except once, and that one time turned out to be a cruel prank. He may be a bully, he may be a funny man, but as Crouch's Malvolio comes close to tearing up thinking on this heartbreak, we fully empathize.

The second half of I, Malvolio is an insightfully funny look at Twelfth Night’s plot from the point of view of Malvolio as an outsider—or, if you will, the insider thrust out. As he was sitting in a cell, accused of being insane, he says, “the world around me goes MAD.” Hearing him retell the story, you, too, realize how nutty Twelfth Night is. A woman pretends to be her twin brother to serve as a love messenger for Orsino, with whom she falls in love. Her twin brother marries a woman he’s just met (and not certain himself of her sanity). Likewise, Olivia, supposedly in mourning, falls in love with a "peevish boy" she's just met. And Orsino on a sudden gives up his long-held love for Olivia to turn his affection on the woman who has been pretending to be a boy, a peevish one at that.

Malvolio’s question to us resonates: “Is this the kind of thing you like? This chaos? This—theater?” He is certain we shouldn't, and as he reminds us, his kind would shut down the theaters 50 years after Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night: bullying on an institutional scale.

Crouch’s brilliance in both his keen writing and keen-eyed performance is how he takes his play to the edge of chaos. His Malvolio tries to hang himself, and he enlists a boy to hold the rope with orders to pull hard when the chair on which Malvolio is standing is pulled away, and a girl is tasked with pulling out the chair (an adult is assigned to check Malvolio's pulse afterward). Even in improv sketches, such as those that Second City performs, I've never seen theater tiptoe such a dangerous precipice. As Malvolio counts down several times (he keeps interrupting himself), we see the eagerness in the boy and the uncertainty in the girl (in this performance, at least), we feel our anticipation and dread entwine, and we truly care for Malvolio but can't shake the notion that he's also responsible for the position he's put himself into. We laugh, too, and we feel guilty about it.

As this is a show suitable for ages 11 and up, you can probably surmise the outcome of this scene. I'll just say that when we clapped for the participation of the children, Malvolio gave us a scolding for doing so ("That's the kind of thing you applaud, is it?").

In such moments, and with each laugh in this play, Malvolio is getting his revenge on the whole pack of us. He blurs the lines of theater and reality enough to make us wonder which we're watching. He makes us laugh and makes us wonder if we should. He gets us into such a state of doubt that it allows him to pull off his ultimate revenge, a theatrically bold prank at the end of the play that I will not reveal here.

Crouch's Malvolio tries to convince us that the theater, including this show, is not worth our time and effort. The ultimate paradox is that this show is so good it's worth seeing again and again.

Eric Minton
January 25, 2013

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