“Strange, stout, in yellow stockings”

“I, Malvolio,” a one-man show by Tim Crouch, presents “Twelfth Night” from the indignant perspective of the demeaned Malvolio. Crouch’s Malvolio not only indicts his antagonists Sir Toby and Feste the Fool, he rages against all the mad and merry happenings of the play, against Shakespeare, against the entire theatrical enterprise, but most of all against us, the audience. When we enter the venue, he is already on stage. Besmirched, swarmed by flies, wearing coxcomb and horns, his ripped underwear soiled with feces and urine, he slides around the stage in yellow cross-gartered stockings. He is a raving derelict, squinting through the house-lights at us, muttering: “I am not mad. I am not mad. I am not mad.” Malvolio knows no fourth wall. As we settle into our seats, anxious giggles bubble up, drawing his angry glare. Someone drops something. “Don’t do that!” barks Malvolio.

Crouch’s Malvolio makes us laugh, then shows us how shallow, mean, petty, gross, and undignified we are for laughing. He eggs us on to help him hang himself, whips us up into a gleeful mock-murderous frenzy, only to deny us the pleasure of such a spectacle. His puritan perspective goes back to Augustine preaching against the games in the Colosseum. All types of humor are put on display in Crouch’s tour-de-force performance: slap-stick, deadpan, parody, potty, topical, satirical, even a surreal confusion of Ilyrria and Chicago, of Malvolio and Crouch himself. There’s also witty literary allusion; but intellectual laughter, he sneers, is the most disgusting noise of all. Malvolio is a prig and a puritan, and we laugh at his upbraiding of us, as at comedian who makes a whole show of coming back at his hecklers. These meta-theatrical hijinks were an everyday aspect of Elizabethan theatre. At a performance of “Henry V” I saw at London’s authentically recreated Globe (directed by and starring Mark Rylance in 1997), when the French insulted the English, they insulted the English, the audience. Here Crouch is true to the Bard.

Yet in “I, Malvolio,” the raging insults are not just dark comedic asides, not digressions from lighter romantic comedy as in “Twelfth Night.” Crouch’s Malvolio presents a dark portrait of the psyche. Like Olivia, we feel Malvolio has been misused. Even as we laugh along, we recognize his pitifulness, empathize with how pathetic he is. We share in his humiliation and thus in his humanity. And because we are in part won to his side, we are taken aback, startled, when he turns on us so violently: “I will be revenged on the whole the pack of you!” This is the puritanical resentment that in Shakespeare’s time closed down the theaters. Malvolio preaches against the happy hysteria of the theatre-going crowd, explains how a prank easily carries too far into cruelty. The only time he felt loved, he confesses, the only time he felt happy, smiling, he was the unwitting player in a farce, the butt of a vicious joke. He refuses to be unwitting ever again. Malvolio, Crouch makes us see, is the original of Dostoevsky’s underground man. “Malvolio” means “ill-will,” and his sickness of soul, for which we may be responsible, may bring the whole culture down, if we do not take care to be more kind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s