The previously untold tale of Malvolio, a minor character from Twelfth Night, is at once illuminated and deconstructed in this unique and unusually thought-provoking piece.
I, Malvolio, presented by the New Victory Theater and now playing at the Duke at 42nd Street is an exercise in sparseness of staging and resourcefulness of script—as the sole character also happens to be played by the writer, Tim Crouch. Perhaps it was due to the multifaceted understanding he possessed as both creator and actor, but Crouch put on a performance that brought to life a fascinating and complex character that was an amalgamation of opposites. This new Malvolio is stiff, yet lovable; From the ancient land of Illyria, yet apparently aware of iPads and television; capable of relentless humor, yet nevertheless able to communicate the darkest moments of his life and leave the audience silent in his wake, united in empathy. As I sat in the half-lighted theater, bearing witness to the crests and troughs of Malvolio’s thoughtful and plainly sincere digressions, I felt an unquestionable allegiance develop between me and the wronged, displaced butler. There were moments when I was greatly moved and moments when I was highly entertained; and the result is unquestionably a work of profound entertainment. The aftertaste of this play is neither saccharine nor bittersweet. For me, the pleasures of this particular bit of entertainment lasted far after I had left my warm seat in the New Victory Theater. Tim Crouch’s masterful script is every bit a character deconstruction of Malvolio (as it claims to be) as it is a guided tour of the rather crankier side of the human psyche–occasional spots of effective humor, notwithstanding.
Crouch’s dual expertise as both actor and writer is also highly evident. Crouch utilizes the basic elements of theater (staging, script, and audience) to their maximum potential to communicate his messages to the audience, with the help of a sequence of wonderfully clever and subtle maneuvers. The play in its entirety consists of a one hour-long monologue delivered by a questionably sane Malvolio, to an audience that exists on the fence straddling reality and the constructed world of the play itself. We, the audience, are addressed in both singular and plural, and Malvolio is only too happy to single out audience-members for the improvisational segments of his monologue. But in the context of the raw and unstaged script, the audience itself seems to passively act out the part of Malvolio’s memories and hallucinations of his past tormentors.
In the performance I attended, the show itself began a little late because according to Crouch/Malvolio, “certain people could not find their seats.” Whether this was fact or fiction was unclear at the time, but ultimately it was a detail of lesser significance. This small opening piece succeeded in establishing Malvolio’s personality, the audience-actor relationship that was to persist throughout the play, and the tone of the monologue itself. Right from the start, we were comfortable with the scene that lay before our eyes. And because we were already comfortable, we soon became enraptured.
As adept in its moments of comedy as in its moments of contemplativeness and philosophical discourse, I, Malvolio is unrestricted by the requirements of any particular age group. There were plenty of children in the audience, and Crouch’s aggressive usage of audience participation seemed to be geared by the script, towards children in particular. But much of the darker aspects of Crouch’s script are fully accessible to adults only; here, adult and child entertainment are not mutually exclusive. There’s a moment when Crouch strips down to his briefs—meant to make his audience laugh uproariously and break the heavier subject matter up into more palatable chunks. Based on its format, broad range, and diversity of content, it seems that Tim Crouch intended for this play to be a memorable one—a winner of audiences’ hearts and worthy engagement for our collective, analytical minds. In my mind, there is no question that I, Malvolio has succeeded on both counts.
I, Malvolio, presented by New Victory Theater at The Duke on 42nd Street runs January 9-20, 2013.