The Beginning: Tim Crouch in/as I, Malvolio. Photo by Bruce Atherton
British actor and playwright Tim Crouch gives audiences a hysterical new perspective on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night through the solo lens of I, Malvolio.
An award-winning theater-maker, Crouch has also examined other seemingly minor characters in the canon, such as The Tempest’s similarly maligned Caliban, one of Queen Titania’s Midsummer minions Peaseblossom, and ill-fated father Banquo from the Scottish play. (He’ll also present all of the Bard’s deaths at Chicago Shakespeare Theater November 30-December 11 – get your tickets NOW).
So his comfort with the material is apparent and astounding, riveting and well argued. Within the confines of the prim butler role, he makes a solid, rapid-fire case for who is actually mad in the play, which thrives on the lunacy-inducing Shakespearean conceits of mistaken identities, instantaneous love, and anarchy over order (textual knowledge is helpful, especially about the “boymanboymanboyman” Viola/Cesario, but not required to see that this character has been egregiously wronged).
He starts from the end of the play (empirically standing upstage as the audience and “surfeit of ushers” file in), when he has been imprisoned and tortured for the love of his lady Olivia, the “unmatchable beauty” whom he thought had reciprocated in the crumped, forged missive he holds. He is dressed in a ratty, stained union suit, wearing a horned hat, red turkey wattle, and specifically the cross-gartered yellow stockings he believed his employer desired.
The delivery is a glorious meta-theatrical mix of the script he’s written, plus brilliant, incisive improvisation peppered throughout, to include youthful volunteers in his prescribed bullying, notably a “Kick Me” sign (thereby providing a vivid anti-bullying message) and to cast the entire audience as his aggregate arch-nemesis, Olivia’s drunken, anarchic uncle Toby Belch, “’all sloping shoulders and stinking breath.”
He breaks from his “I’m not mad, I’m in love” and “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” mantras to advise that patrons put down their programs and snacks, and to “keep your hands away from your groins.” He chastises those sitting with “cups of canary” (“the drink will undo you,” he says, “it already has”) as well as the obvious bear-baiters, in addition to a man with a long white beard, dubbed Father Christmas.
“I always wondered what you did in the summertime,” he said.
Among his tirades against litter (starting with his beloved letter) and the modern day audience’s avoidance of church, Crouch/Malvolio reminds us that we are in two places at once and we are to accept this ontological dualism of living in two overlapping realities, the alpha reality of our “sad, dull, monochrome Illinois existence,” and the beta reality of being in Shakespeare’s Illyria (as well as that of beliefs and their effects).
He also prompts the viewers to make correct dramaturgical choices to disdain, rather than support, him.
While not derivative, the conceit evokes Stoppard’s equally shrewd and literate ethos in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a fun while deep deconstruction of the theater, and its “mess of idolatry and fornication.”
“Pleasure is not free,” he says. “There are consequences.”
Crouch says he likes the irony that Malvolio is “a theater-hating puritan stuck inside a play prone to all the random chaos an audience can inflict on a performer,” and relishes in “that sweet spot between comedy and pain.”
Some of that liminal space is taken as he cleans up on stage, washing his face, having a young woman peel off those damned yellow socks, removing his onesie to reveal a leopard print thong, and slowing redressing in his finest, starched livery.
During his ablutions, his continues to berate the pedestrian audience for these “theater reservations made months ago, now viewed with bitter regret,” that “nobody really wants to be here,” and how he hates the “sound of intellectual posturing” when a woman repeats “some men are born great” speech along with him.
Then he’s off on the institution of theater again. “I’m not even doing naturalism anymore,” as he struggles to put clean socks on – and reminds us that he is mad yet theater is educational. That all’s well that ends well when the Fool “sings a stupid song?”
He concludes with the spot-on conclusion that he was “imprisoned for the madness of falling in love.” And we are all with him, despite his attempts to the opposite.
It’s a brilliant argument about life, the faux lives of actors on stage, and correctly questions why we tell the same silly stories for over 400 years.
“I have let Malvolio run a little free,” Crouch says. “He would hate me for it.”
I, Malvolio ran June 2-5 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., 312-595-5600.
The End: Tim Crouch in/as I, Malvolio