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Theater Review: I, Malvolio and a Festival Roundup

I, Malvolio
“Some are born mad,” mutters Tim Crouch’s Malvolio, standing before us in filthy long johns, face begrimed, crowned with devil horns. “Some achieve madness. And some have madness thrust upon them.” Which category does ol’ Mal — the famously abused prig of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night — fall into? After being baited by scheming carousers with a fake love letter from his beautiful employer, fooled into shedding his austere high-buckled mufti for yellow-plaid tights, and finally, pitiably, thrown into a dungeon as a loony, what is he? Delightful figure of fun? Or innocent victim, more than owed a shot at the revenge he keeps promising? Crouch, a U.K. theater artist of growing renown, leaves that up to the audience — and reactions will almost certainly vary from crowd to crowd.

I, Malvolio is Crouch’s partially improvised, audience-goading defense of Illyria’s most controversial butler: Whether he’s the bully or the bullied, Malvolio is a puritan and a scold, and whether his intolerance can be tolerated, whether intolerance of intolerance is itself intolerance, is the sort of question you could fight a whole English civil war over. (Or a whole American culture war, for that matter.) Crouch, a brave and brilliant performer capable of commanding even the most fractious room, doesn’t need to wade in that deep. He premiered this show in front of a high-school audience in his native Brighton, and he’s performed it for New York City schoolkids, too. (I was lucky enough to catch one of those, and I came away with tremendous respect for both Crouch and New York City schoolkids.) He rants. He spits. He singles people out. He excoriates them for their gum-chewing and baggy-pants-wearing and “fornicating.” He forces one unlucky individual to kick his rump, which peeks heinously through a strategic rip in his rotten undies. He tests, ever so indelicately, the limits of their patience while simultaneously arousing their pity and affection. Could there be a better show for the anti-bullying age?

At the Duke on 42nd through Sunday. Go now!

The COIL and Under the Radar Festivals
Meanwhile, in festival world, COIL and Under the Radar are garnering deserved acclaim. I’m still chasing down the early fave Inflatable Frankenstein (COIL), but last weekend, I was lucky enough to catch the riveting, raucous, piety-exploding Ganesh Versus the Third Reich at UTR/the Public Theater. Created by Australia’s Back to Back Theatre, Ganesh is performed by four extraordinary “intellectually disabled” actors (Simon Laherty, Mark Deans, Brian Tilley, and Scott Price) and one, David (Luke Ryan), who is not disabled — who is, in addition, uncommonly good-looking. David is the ensemble’s director: initially sweet, if a bit preening, pompous, and condescending. The show is set in rehearsal for Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, an idea concocted by Brian: Ganesh, the elephant-headed Hindu god who specializes in overcoming obstacles, travels to Nazi Germany to take back the swastika, a Sanskrit symbol of life coopted by the Nazis. (The “fable” portion of the show is executed with gorgeous low-tech aplomb, incorporating shadow puppetry, projections, animation, and a series of stenciled plastic scrims.) The errand proves more challenging than Ganesh anticipated, and the show gets dicier, tonally and morally, than David and his actors could’ve predicted, to say nothing of the stunned audience members: We sit rapt, our political correctnesses in a sweaty knot, our concepts of exploitation and offensiveness spinning like mobiles. And all the while, David is visibly becoming more and more frustrated with his co-stars (or are they his charges?), one in particular: Scott isn’t sure this play is respectful of its source history. David’s grip on power — his authority as director and “able-bodied” chieftain — is progressively loosened, and his recurring role as Dr. Mengele gets creepier and creepier. Can symbols, once polluted, truly be reclaimed? Can suppositions and bigotries be easily undone once loosed? And who gets to play Hitler? In the end, it’s Simon. And he is ... well, terrifying. And hilarious. And, like the rest of the show (and its flabbergasting conclusion), quietly unsettling.

The chief inquiries of Ganesh recur in several festival shows: matters of story ownership, authenticity, and authority are at the fore. (Half of Ganesh is in German, half in pickly Hogan’s Heroes German-accented English, to underline this.) Translation and transformation are also the operative forces in Seagull (Thinking of You), by Tina Satter and her Half Straddle outfit. Chekhov’s play, freely adapted, is rehearsed in Russian and performed in stilted English by an all-female cast. It’s now an entirely lesbian universe, with the invasive male force of Trigorin, chief actuator of Chekhov’s plot, altered into a butch womanizer named “Peter” (played by Becca Blackwell). The diaphanous set design evokes a teenage girl’s bedroom, decked with Russki kitsch, and the mood is one of farewell: to childhood attachments and assumptions, to accepted notions of a famous text, and to cyclical melodramas, both literary and personal. Meanwhile, in UTR’s Zero Cost House — a collaboration between Pig Iron Theatre (Chekhov Lizardbrain) and Japanese playwright Toshiki Okada — a Japanese playwright grapples with his personal anxieties in the wake of Fukushima and his related attraction to Thoreau: Is fleeing from the horror of civilization the heroic choice? Or a coward’s retreat? Or a crank’s panacea? Don’t expect answers: These are festival shows. Just get some exposure.

Photo: Matthew Andrews