I, Malvolio has its playful moments
By Tim Crouch. Direction assistance by Karl James and a smith. A Tim Crouch Theatre production, presented by the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival and the Cultch. At the Cultch’s Historic Theatre on Thursday, January 31. Continues until February 10
I, Malvolio is okay—smart and funny sometimes but not nearly as smart and funny as it seems to think it is.
In this solo show, English playwright and actor Tim Crouch explores the character Malvolio from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In that play, a band of practical jokers forge a letter from Lady Olivia to Malvolio, her puritanical steward, in which she declares her love for him and instructs him to smile and wear yellow, cross-gartered stockings. The thrilled, smitten servant does as he’s told and behaves like a fool. As a result, he is declared mad and incarcerated in a dark prison. When he’s released, his curse—“I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you”—leavens the hilarity of the play’s multiple nuptials.
Malvolio is a fantastic creation; well played, he will make you laugh and he’ll break your heart. Starting the show in filthy, pee-stained long johns and a headpiece that features horns and turkey wattles, Crouch gets the heartbreak right. His Malvolio can’t refer to his love for Olivia without collapsing into himself, head down, and whispering; you can almost feel the pain in his chest.
But did I, Malvolio illuminate the character for me? No. Crouch has created a kind of theatrical essay in which he deliberately explores the cruelty of comedy—“You find that funny, do you?”—and the madness of love. But these themes are explored much more affectingly in Twelfth Night, which doesn’t lecture.
I, Malvolio made me uncomfortable at first because the character is so clearly disturbed off the top. A bit of unease can be a good thing in the theatre. But after a comic scene about suicide, the tension goes out of the script as Crouch recounts the plot turns of Twelfth Night in detail.
Crouch is funny, especially when he’s improvising. And his playfulness creates some solid laughs. I particularly enjoyed the passage in which he gets carried away with comic business while putting on a stocking and declares, “I’m not even doing naturalism anymore.”
Much of the humour in I, Malvolio is odd, though—partly, perhaps, because it was originally created for high-school audiences. There’s an ongoing gag, for instance, in which the character exposes his near-naked butt to the audience. The crowd I saw the show with didn’t find this wildly funny, which clearly disrupted Crouch’s expectations and undermined the intended rhythm of the piece. “It’s like walking through mud!” Crouch complained at one point, teasing us about our lack of response. But who cares about a naked bum anymore?
A skilled technician, Crouch uses a wide vocal range and he varies his rhythms, often speaking very quickly. For much of this, however, I simply felt that I was watching an actor showing off.
I’d much rather watch Malvolio in his natural habitat, Twelfth Night.