Spymonkey – The Complete Deaths

48CompleteDeaths.jpgThe United Kingdom-based physical comedy troupe Spymonkey’s members include Toby Park, Petra Massey, Aitor Basauri and Stephan Kreiss, all of whom play fictionalized, exaggerated versions of their own “real” identities in The Complete Deaths, which ran recently at the theater Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare. The premise of the show is as follows: an ensemble troupe is performing an evening of avant-garde, serious, “anti-capitalist” Shakespeare in which all the onstage deaths in the canon are to be presented, each death commemorated on a neon sign counting down to “76.” This is “art” and, as the ostensible leader of the troupe, Toby, proclaims—real art is meant to be challenging: “the first death is of the audience’s complacency.” There are in fact only seventy-four onstage deaths in Shakespeare’s plays; if the first “death” is of the audience’s horizon of expectation, the final death is of the “black ill-favored fly” from Titus Andronicus. This fly, in turn, poses something of a recurring gag through­out in that a fly-camera is also stuck at the end of a record­ing stick that occasionally travels up actors’ noses and into their mouths, the resulting visions projected onto a screen at the back of the stage.

Part of the ongoing conceit of the piece is our glimpse into the complex group dynamics of the company as the performers occasionally rebel (and eventually briefly revolt) against Toby’s artistic vision: leading lady Petra’s insistence on playing Ophelia, even if that death technically happens offstage; German clown Stephan’s penchant for pulling focus with his physical comedy; Spanish clown Aitor’s ambition to become a “serious” Shakespearean actor, in part encouraged by his occasional solo communions with Shakespeare, represented as a giant face projected on a screen who coaches Aitor from the great beyond on how best to act (“point your fingers a lot”). The show was written by Tim Crouch, whom Chicago audiences might recall from his one-man show I, Malvolio (indeed, many of Toby’s direct addresses to the audience seemed to echo, if only tonally, moments from I, Malvolio).

Unfolding at a rapid pace, then, are a series of dazzling set-pieces—some pure slapstick, others incorporating recorded and live music and dance, still others performed via puppets and/or screen projections, all involving innovative costuming—brilliantly realized by these four seasoned performers with extensive training in physical theater, including especially clowning. The show moves from the lesser-known deaths toward the more notable ones—Romeo, Juliet, Hamlet—which conclude the show. It should also be clear that prop blood flows in abundance, especially within a blood-wrestling scene between a dueling Aitor and Stephan that precedes the intermission.

Notable stand outs for me included the musical song and dance number performed in chef hats and aprons for Titus Andronicus, this tableau also including a kazoo for Lavinia’s tongue and a prop meat grinder into which bodies are fed, sausage links emerging from the other side. The death of Richard III was set to blaring club music, the performers wearing gas masks and black latex bondage gear right out of a Berlin sex club. In a shift into puppetry, the company manipulated unnerving marionette stick-figures for the death of the poet Cinna at the hands of an angry mob in Julius Caesar (this death scene was also projected live onto a video screen). Time and time again innovative costuming helped contribute to the overall success of each scene, perhaps most memorably in the death of Cleopatra: upon intoning her “I am fire and air” speech Cleopatra whips off her dress to reveal asps dangling from each nipple of her prop breasts—and then whips up her skirt to reveal even more adders dangling from between her legs (the show was advertised for mature audiences). To be sure, the designer Lucy Bradridge deserves all praise for her efforts.

I found myself most taken, however, with the death scenes that incorporated some note of seriousness. For example, the slaughter of the Macduffs was initially performed within a riveting modern dance sequence that was both theatrically vibrant and poignant in spite of the contrast between the precision of the movements and the silly Scottish “drag” of the dancers: bare chests, yellow kilts, and Petra done up in a red beard and red chest hair.

As his colleagues push back harder and harder against his “serious” vision (Aitor deciding that bubbles are of the utmost importance), Toby eventually quits in despair—his cue to perform the death of Enobarbus, the only character in Shakespeare who dies of a broken heart and another stand-out moment for me. In Toby’s absence artistic hell breaks temporarily breaks loose—Aitor and Stephan run amok in elaborately absurd clown costumes, bubbles are blown, Petra rolls in as Ophelia within a giant plastic sphere—but the cast reconcile, reaffirm Toby’s vision, and the play concludes with last act of Hamlet—followed by, of course, the final (and protracted) death throes of the fly, as seen on the video screen.

The show as a whole ought to convince American audiences who might associate clowning with all things Bozo of the rigor and seriousness of professional “clown” training: each member of the company was an extraordinary physical performer, dancer, acrobat, and musician. If within the fiction of The Complete Deaths Petra was hell-bent on playing Ophelia, my wish would be for this company to devise a similarly acrobatic, physically challenging, irreverent and Grand-Guignolesque production of Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, the black camp tone of that play matching the aesthetics evident throughout this production.

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.

Tim Crouch – I, Malvolio at Chicago Shakespeare Theater


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.

Tim Crouch – I, Malvolio at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

PROMO PIC 1 I MALVOLIO-edited by KS at CST.jpg

Experimental thespian Tim Crouch’s I, Malvolio is a study in what it means to laugh at another’s sorrow. The play is part of a sequence focusing on lesser, unsung, and often unlikable characters from Shakespeare’s oeuvre, including Caliban, Peaseblossom, Banquo, and Cinna. Comedies like Twelfth Night, from which Crouch draws for the roughly ninety-minute piece, were and are vehicles for compelling ensemble work, while tragedies often serve a celebrity front-man. Part of the ingenuity of this one-man Shakespearean comedy is to explore, in form and in content, where exactly that sweet spot between comedy and discomfort lies.

You find this funny, do you? 

“You find this funny, do you?”: Crouch’s Malvolio asked this of us over and over as he subjected himself to a series of embarrassments. While cracking wise at the average age of the afternoon matinee audience, he summoned up three students to aid in his public shaming. One, a boy he nicknamed “Bluey” for his blue shirt, he had kick him in response to the signs on his back: the first read “turkey cock” and second “kick me.” Another, “Pinky,” for his pink shorts, was asked alongside a young woman to help facilitate an on-stage hanging. While at first the audience’s laughter was immediate in response to these antics, by the time we reached the hanging scene the laughter was forced and uncomfortable—the audience uncertain of the script they were to follow. Routinely pointing at the audience to accuse us of sins varietal, as much as Malvolio inquired of our sense of humor he also intoned that he would certainly have “revenge on the pack of you.”

Mourning, interrupted

Structuring the arc of Malvolio’s interrogations of us was his re-narrativizing the plot of Twelfth Night. Crouch makes two particularly astute observations about the possible motivations compelling his character’s puritanical attitude. First, he reminds us that Malvolio not only organized and served for the lifetime of Olivia’s recently deceased brother, but also her father. Second, he reflects on the fast approach of Sir Toby Belch, whose behaviors interrupt the fragile routine the household has barely had a chance to cobble together after these deaths. Aside from the interloping Sir Toby and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, arguably Malvolio and the Fool are the only male members of the household left—reorganizing the flow of power in the household into a matriarchy. Not only is Malvolio a Puritan trapped in the world of a play, but he is trapped in a household now run by women. Accosted by the constant interruptions of Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, the Duke Orsino and his household, Malvolio is unable to move through the natural progression of mourning. 

Many a good hanging

In this light, the play quite literally adds insult to Malvolio’s emotional injury when Sir Toby and his crew bait him with the forged letter. The letter makes an appearance on stage, crumpled at the outset and then orbited around by Malvolio as if it were the gravitational center of his injury—a site of trauma he can’t help but rehearse. Rotating, he weighs his own sanity, insisting that despite the “ontological duality” of his presence in a theater—simultaneously in Illyria and in Chicago—he is “not mad.” Working through this ontological duality with a speedy set of jokes of local color (no few references to the presidential race were made), Malvolio works through the sanity of his cross-gartered response to the letter. We are reminded briefly of the darkest moment in Twelfth Night, Malvolio’s entrapment in a pit by the Fool to keep him from impeding the more procreatively and hierarchically suitable coupling of his lady to a mysterious twin she has only just met. (Again, his desire to slow that courtship seems anything but insane outside the world of Shakespeare’s play.) More than the letter, the pit is the catharsis, the event that underscores the line where laughing at the ways in which the ego and the body will out crosses into schadenfreude. He concludes: we, the audience, are Sir Toby in this Chicago theater; we are the bully on which he must have revenge.

Malvolio’s revenge

And he does get it. In the last act of I, Malvolio, our leading man rejects his noose and instead strips out of his soiled undergarments down to a leopard-printed thong. From there, he gradually applied face powder and period costume to reassume his position as rule-maker and -enforcer of the hierarchy that bullied him so. At the end of the first act, we were told to sit up straight and stay exactly as we were while he stepped off stage; he returned rather immediately from what seemed like an otherwise pointless exercise. Now re-dressed, we were instructed by Malvolio once again to sit up straight, keeping just as we were until his return. He left, and we waited. And waited. Awkward shuffling commenced. A clever member of the audience shouted out, “Come back, Malvolio! All is forgiven!” Crouch had sacrificed his applause so that Malvolio might have his revenge on the audience, and by extension, Sir Toby. We never knew when the play had ended—and still don’t. We never knew when it had started, for that matter, since Malvolio had been on the stage waiting for us since we arrived and the black box space used universal lighting throughout.

By examining Malvolio’s motivations for clues as to why he may have been such a target for abuse in the world of Twelfth NightI, Malvolio confirms that this character is in fact deserving of dislike, but not for the reasons one might assume. While Malvolio spends the adaptation accusing and coercing the audience into playing the role of the bully, as the Puritan valet he has far greater bullying to answer for—in upholding the social norms and mechanizing aristocratic hierarchy—than his audience. By exploring the zone where humor transforms into hate, I, Malvolio asks us to consider what is to be gained by troubling the rule-makers.

Elizabeth Elaine Tavares is an assistant professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature in the English department at Pacific University. Special­izing in Shakespeare and Tudor drama, her research foci include playing companies, theater history and performance. Her publications have appeared in Shakespeare Bulletin and Shakespeare Studies among others. She currently serves as scholar-in-residence with the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival in Portland, Oregon. She holds advanced degrees in English Literature and History from DePaul University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Read more about Elizabeth…