Staged in the intimate black-box “Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare” venue, Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio retells the plot of Twelfth Night from the perspective of the puritanical steward of Olivia’s household. Some of the play’s earliest readers and spectators were likewise struck by the rules-obsessed Malvolio, who seems wholly out of place in a romantic comedy; in a diary entry describing a 1602 performance, for example, John Manningham ignored all other plotlines to focus exclusively on the steward’s public shaming, and in his own copy of the Second Folio, King Charles II crossed out Twelfth Night and wrote in its place Malvolio. In Shakespeare, Malvolio is made to pay for his puritanism by being tricked into thinking his mistress is in love with him, after which he’s locked in a “dark house” and treated as if he were mad. Crouch sets his production in the immediate aftermath of this ‘notorious abuse.’ As the audience files in we see him already standing onstage in a ridiculous hat, yellow stockings, and stained underwear, a sign reading “Turkey Cock” hanging off his back. And quite possibly a little bit mad after this poor treatment, although he keeps insisting he isn’t.
The performance’s central conceit is the character’s adversarial relationship to the audience: if Malvolio is on the side of restraint, order, and moderation, we as theatrical spectators must necessarily be aligned with his enemies, the pleasure-seeking Sir Tobys, Festes, and Marias of the world. Throughout the roughly seventy-five-minute production Malvolio interrupts the narrative to sneer “you find this funny, do you,” also reminding us that he’ll eventually “have his revenge on the pack of us,” one of the few lines drawn directly from the play. At times Malvolio’s complaints seem eminently reasonable, if crankily delivered: it would be irritating to suffer a house guest like Sir Toby; it is odd that Olivia—having fallen in love with one person—happily accepts a substitute look-alike of the “appropriate” gender. As Malvolio, Crouch, moreover, movingly evinces the hurt and humiliation of being tricked into thinking that Olivia loves him.
Given its recurring threat of “revenge,” I, Malvolio repeatedly asks its audience to reflect on the ethics of spectatorship—what exactly is funny about watching someone’s humiliation? Behind this we might also consider the resentment of the actor who nightly walks onstage to solicit the approval of strangers. For the most part, however, I suspect the audience felt no particular qualms at all about watching what is an ultimately lighthearted take on the source material.
To be sure, those singled out for individual attention and abuse seemed to enjoy his improvisational banter very much. The majority of these “improvisatory” moments were clearly carefully scripted, for example appeals for members to come onstage to help him with various costume changes, but in no way seemed forced; Crouch is a dab hand at reading and interacting with his audience. Perhaps the closest the play came to eliciting more nervous, self-conscious, or complicit laughter was a bit of stage action that veered altogether from Shakespeare’s plot: at one point it looks as if Malvolio is going to hang himself with the help of two spectators pulled from the crowd, one holding the chair, the other the rope, only for Malvolio to abandon the enterprise altogether. If he’s going to get his revenge, it won’t be this.
Instead, at the end of the play we see him literally reconstitute himself by stripping down to a thong only to don period costume, wig, and whiteface makeup, Malvolio once more his authoritative self (and if we laughed at the sight of his exposed buttocks well, more proof of what Malvolio already believes about the moral probity of playgoers). Earlier in the play Malvolio had admonished the audience to sit up straight and pay attention while he briefly exited. He does the same again—only this time, he never comes back. Malvolio’s revenge is thus to deny the audience the expected rhythms of theatrical closure—no real ending, no curtain call, just a trailing off, with the audience unsure as to what to do next.
I, Malvolio is the fourth in a series of solo plays that, in Crouch’s words, “look at things through the eyes of Shakespeare’s lesser characters.” If these earlier plays were written with younger audiences in mind, the program notes tells us that I, Malvolio was designed to appeal to a broader age range, but I still thought it seemed to imagine younger audiences who may not be that familiar with Shakespeare—this show a gateway drug to the real thing, as it were. Given his talent for improvisation, I would love to see Crouch engage with riskier or edgier material and to push the idea of the audience’s discomfort to an even greater degree.
Andrea Stevens is an associate professor of English, theatre and medieval studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she specializes in the drama of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. She holds a PhD in English literature from the University of Virginia, an MA in literature from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and a BA (Honors) in English from Huron University College in London, Ontario.