Toronto Fringe: Twelfth Night from Malvolio’s perspective in the riveting, visceral and cerebral I, Malvolio

Justin Otto. Photo by John Gundy.

 

impel theatre gives us Malvolio’s perspective of the events from Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night in Tim Crouch’s riveting, visceral, cerebral I, Malvolio, directed by Kendra Jones, assisted by clown consultant Calvin Peterson. I, Malvolio had its closing performance at the Smart Cookie Club at Artscape Youngplace last night.

As we prepare to enter the theatre, we’re given a Student Theatre Evaluation Form, with five questions about the presentation we’re about to see; here, we are middle school students and a guest speaker will be joining us. The chairs within room 109 are both child- and adult-sized; and we can also choose to sit on a cushion on the floor; we are invited to make ourselves comfortable, and participate—and even leave—as we like.

Dressed in yellow socks, black shorts and a worn t-shirt with yellow suspenders, and sporting clown makeup, Malvolio (Justin Otto) sits on the floor, reading a love letter—purportedly from his mistress Olivia, but actually a practical joke instigated by her uncle Sir Toby Belch, with the help of conspirators within the household. He maintains throughout that he is not mad, but does he protest too much? Turning his attention to us, like an overly strict substitute teacher, he snaps at us to correct our posture and turns accuser, and making us complicit in the practical joke that went too far against him. If we’re going to behave like children, we’re going to be treated like children. And he will have his revenge upon us all.

He takes us through the story we know from Twelfth Night from his point of view. How he takes his job as Olivia’s Steward very seriously; his hawk-eyed attention ever set on keeping order, cleanliness and decorum within the household. How his uncharacteristic behaviour was inspired by a love letter he thought was written in earnest; and how he was locked up in the dark and filth as a madman—only to be released to learn it was all a joke, and his beloved mistress has married a man she’s known for less than a day! And what about the crazy goings-on of the others? Viola dressing as a man. The love triangle between Olivia, Viola and Orsino. And Viola’s twin Sebastian agreeing to marry Olivia after knowing her less than a day!

Otto is a compelling presence, giving a performance that is grounded in his body, both visceral and cerebral as he lays out Malvolio’s arguments. Playing Devil’s advocate as he sets out this other perspective of the story, he forces us to examine our responses to mean-spirited practical jokes and bullying, as Malvolio rages on, reliving the pain, trauma and humiliation of what was done to him. And considers what form his revenge will take as he draws willing audience members into his plan of action. Malvolio isn’t mad—but he is broken and struggling to regain his sense of identity and equilibrium.

Sure, Malvolio is an overly proud, self-righteous, humourless, insipid man. He also has a fastidious attention to detail, order and management, making him excellent at his job. And he didn’t deserve to be treated so.

Keep your eyes peeled for future impel theatre productions.

Fond, foolish love & trickster shenanigans in the roaringly entertaining Twelfth Night

Shakespeare BASH’d continues its 2016-17 season with a ripping version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night; directed by James Wallis with associate director Drew O’Hara, and opening to a sold out house at the Monarch Tavern last night.

Set in the 1920s, and inspired by the music, speak easy atmosphere and carpe diem abandon of that decade, this version of Twelfth Night also hits notes of melancholy and the lost innocence of a society that’s just come through its first world war—self-medicating with jazz and booze, and grabbing love and happiness when and where they can.

Orsino (Shawn Ahmed) is deeply in love with Olivia (Hallie Seline), but she is in deep mourning for her father and now her brother, whose death occurred soon after. Meanwhile, Viola (Jade Douris) has washed ashore, surviving a ship wreck in which she fears her twin brother Sebastian was lost. Aware that she is a woman alone and setting foot on less than friendly territory, she disguises herself as a page named Cesario and goes to work for Orsino. Seizing an opportunity to utilize the pretty youth, Orsino sends Cesario/Viola to press his suit to Olivia—leaving Olivia smitten with Cesario, which is beyond awkward for Cesario/Viola, as she’s fallen in love with Orsino.

In Olivia’s household, her drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch (Daniel Briere), ignored suitor Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Jesse Nerenberg) and sassy gentlewoman Maria (Julia Nish-Lapidus) plot revenge on Olivia’s severe, proud steward Malvolio (Jesse Griffiths) with the help of the newly returned Feste (a female Fool in trousers played by Lesley Robertson) and the local parish priest Fabian (Augusto Bitter).

Meanwhile, we learn that Viola’s brother Sebastian (Jeff Yung) has survived the wreck; saved by the ship’s captain Antonio (Nate Bitton), now a good friend and devoted to Sebastian. And, of course, as this is Shakespeare, there’s a comedy of errors with the twins—and as it’s a comedy, it all works out in the end. But this is a comedy with dark undertones, particularly with the tricks played on Malvolio, which go from harmless prank to gas lighting; and there is an edge of wounded melancholy evident in all the characters.

Really nice work from the ensemble, who invite the audience along the journey, bringing us into this world. Stand-outs include Seline’s Olivia, a lovely and richly layered performance; a proud, strong woman, Olivia has sharp enough wit to match any man, but also a tender and fragile heart. Seline conveys as much from a facial expression as she does with the text. Griffiths does a great job with Malvolio; stiff and imperious, with a nasty, prideful underbelly, the self-righteous Malvolio is too self-involved and delighted to see what’s really going on when the others punk him.

Robertson drops the mic as Feste; hilariously witty and a master debater, she too has a soft heart—especially for Curio—and we get the sense that, beneath all her tomfoolery, she’s come through the war deeply hurt. And Briere and Nerenberg make for a very funny, odd team as the drunken, layabout Belch and awkward, clueless Aguecheek.

Speaking of tomfoolery, the letter reveal scene is particularly hilarious, with Belch, Aguecheek and Fabian rushing about to hide as they watch Malvolio read a love letter he believes to be for him from Olivia; as is the duel scene between the terrified Aguecheek and Douris’s adorably baffled and equally petrified Cesario/Viola.

Opening with music selections from the period—and featuring accompaniment (guitar, ukulele and piano), lovely vocals and original music by Franziska Beeler (as Curio)—there’s a sexy, jazzy vibe to this production; and nicely bookended with the dance number (choreographed by Douris) at the curtain call.

Fond, foolish love and trickster shenanigans in the roaringly entertaining Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night continues at the Monarch Tavern until February 5; it’s a short run and they’re already sold out, but if you show up early, they may be able to squeeze you in. Please note the 7:30pm start time for evening performances; there are also matinees at 2pm on February 4 and 5.

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Photo by Kyle Purcell: Jesse Nerenberg, Julia Nish-Lapidus & Daniel Briere, with Jesse Griffiths’ legs