It's a jumble of words at first, spat from the mouth of a man in tight, soiled long johns, horns on his head, turkey wattle under his chin. A four-word mantra repeated so quickly, we don't understand what he's saying. And then, he slows down.
"I am not mad."
The man is Malvolio, Shakespeare's puritanical steward from Twelfth Night who, over the course of that play, is humiliated to the point of desiring "revenge on the whole pack of you."
I, Malvolio, a sixty minute solo show written and performed by Tim Crouch (now running at the Duke on 42nd Street), explores the titular steward's tortured psyche. He's not mad in one respect: he's not crazy, despite what his fellow Twelfth Night-ers believe. But he is angry: mad that he's been fooled by a group of dead-eyed and slack-jawed drunkards. And he promises to take revenge.
In Twelfth Night, Malvolio is tricked into believing that his lady is in love with him. He dons yellow stockings, garters, and even worse, a smile, thinking that she wrote him a letter confessing her desire. And then he's thrown in the dungeon, imprisoned, thought of as a lunatic, and finally paraded around the town as if nothing happened.
Crouch doesn't expect the younger crowd I, Malvolio targets to know what Twelfth Night is, so an understanding of that delightful comedy of mistaken identities is not required (though he provides a concise synopsis over the course of the show). He does want his audience to laugh. And with a generous heaping of skilled shtick, laugh they do. Here is a master performer who isn't shaken by a younger audience's vociferousness; in fact, dead silence would be far more distracting.
The louder kids, the gigglers, the wide-eyed stare-ers, are the ones invited to participate in the show. He asks one to help him don his shoes, to put on his waistcoat, to kick him in the ass, to hold the hangman's noose. ("Is this the sort of thing you find funny?" he asks, expecting the audience to reply a hearty, "NO.") Kids respond to this humor. So do adults. Crouch is smart enough to realize that potty jokes are tiresome and instead goes for slightly more risqué. (A leopard thong makes an appearance). The humor is just the kind of cheeky that kids want to keep secret. Grown-ups will be giggling juts as hard.
By the end, Malvolio has grown, but not necessarily changed. His dignity is quietly regained, though revenge is still promised. And he does get it. But we are not mad, either.
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