I, Malvolio

By Tim Crouch

Designed by Graeme Gilmour

Produced by Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Malvolio Has Had Enough of Your Shit

Twelfth Night is one of the most heavily featured plays of the Shakespeare 400 Festival, and is the selection for this year’s Shakespeare in the Parks series. Consequently, Chicago audiences will have plenty of chances to snicker at the Puritanical valet Malvolio. But in this adaptation, written and performed by Tim Crouch, Malvolio finally gets his long-promised revenge. On us, that is. In an hour-long one-man show, the most notoriously abused servant presents his case, and invites us to take on the role of Sir Toby Belch. The show’s humor largely depends on how fully the audience embraces that role.

Tim Crouch as Malvolio. Photo by Bruce Atherton and Jana Chiellino. Top image by Greg Goodale.

The play begins with Malvolio staring at us balefully while we file into the upstairs space at Navy Pier, no doubt carrying alcohol and searching the programs for references to our donations. In his crisp accent and low, hissing voice, he snaps at us to put all that away and sit up straight, and then berates us for our gluttony, materialism, drunkenness, fornication, church-skipping, violence-craving, group-bullying, love of low-brow humor. But he’s not mad. He’s still dressed like he is, wearing the feces, urine, and blood-stained one-piece long underwear from his captivity, a hat with horns and other baubles, a wattle, and a sign on his back that says “Turkey Cock,” but that’s an unfortunate circumstance brought about by people like us. It’s an example of why theatres should be shut down, and don’t snicker at that, you inebriated, liberal-arts educated slattern.

Over the course of the play, Malvolio will invite audience members to come up onstage to help him get dressed, kick him in the rear, and hang him. Their willingness to do so is, of course, narratively ideal, but personally and psychologically devastating. His snarky description of Twelfth Night’s plot is what every loving and not-so-loving critic of the play has pointed out (is there really any reason at all for Viola to dress as a man?), but it emphasizes that the reason he fell for the forged note purportedly expressing Countess Olivia’s love for him is that it was the first time in his life he had ever felt anything like love or happiness. He hopes we would therefore feel sorry about his humiliation, but being Malvolio, he makes that extremely difficult. And being Tim Crouch, he also eggs the audience on to supply him with more reasons to get upset.

I, Malvolio is one of five pieces Crouch has written exploring minor characters in Shakespeare, and somewhat unexpectedly, is the one designed for people of the widest age range. He recommends the show for those over twelve, and, in character, expressed surprise at the relatively grey audience on opening night (which just made their delight in crude, sadistic humor all the worse, though it explained a lot about the state of the world). Malvolio’s revenge turns out to be so childish many people could hardly believe it was happening at all, but the piece is basically an exercise in trolling the audience. As such, it requires the audience to be willing to feed their tormentor, establishing a mutually abusive relationship for the sake of fun and contemplation on classic literature. Chicagoans will only have a few more chances to do so, since Crouch is just in town for the weekend. Get your kick in today.

Recommended

Jacob Davis

3jacob.davis@gmail.com

Reviewed June 2, 2016

For more information, see I, Malviolio’s page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing in the upstairs theatre at Chicago Shakespeare, 800 E Grand Ave, Navy Pier, Chicago. Tickets are $38; to order, call 312-595-5600 or visit chicagoshakes.com. Performances are June 3 at 7:30 pm, June 4 at 3:00 and 8:00 pm, and June 5 at 2:00 pm. Running time is one hour.