…. Let’s Hear it for Malvolio …

If you are collecting “life Shakespeare plays” the way birdwatchers collect “life birds,” here’s a chance to add Twelfth Night.  The stage is large in comparison with the audience space — not a bad seat in the house — and the actors all have good diction so you’ll catch every word, though perhaps not the fullness of the poetry.

Twelfth Night is a problematic play, in spite of its reputation as a favorite among Shakespeare’s comedies.  For one thing, it’s a mean play:  much of the comedy is based on a cruel hoax perpetrated on a servant, Malvolio, who, though admittedly dour and pompous, doesn’t deserve what he gets.  The injustice is righted only at the very end after the characters and the audience have had plenty of laughs at his expense.  Shakespeare must have known Malvolio had to be intensely interesting — he’s one of the unforgettable characters — and that Malvolio’s subplot had to gross a lot of laughs because the main plot isn’t enough to keep a full play going.

In this comedy of mistaken identities circling around a brother and sister separated by a shipwreck, the sister, Viola, being in the employ of Orsino, cross-dresses to woo Olivia on behalf of her master whom she secretly loves.  Repulsing Orsino, and believing that Viola is a boy, Olivia falls in love with her instead.  Eventually the brother thought to be lost shows up and — after an extended period in which the brother and sister share the stage without noticing one another — they realize with joy that all are safe:  Viola easily transfers her passion to Olivia’s newly-arrived look-alike brother, Viola and Orsino are united, and — thank heavens! — some restitution is made to Malvolio, though not enough to make up for what he’s gone through to keep everyone laughing.

Malvolio’s degradation is caused by a letter sent “for fun” to delude him into thinking that Olivia, his mistress (in love with male-appearing Viola) cherishes a passion for him, and that to please his mistress he should don clothing and act in a way that, taking him beyond his temperament and station in life, will render him absurd.  Following the instructions — how not since he believes they come from his mistress’ own hand? — he appears, famously, cross-gartered, in yellow stockings, etc., and altogether ridiculous:  it’s assumed he’s gone mad and he’s thrown into prison.  It’s worth considering that in addition to the fact that the letter really did appear to come from his mistress, we know that she did fall in love with Viola whom she thought to be a servant (as well as male) so the mistress-loves-servant motif is not preposterous, so therefore not preposterous for him to have believed.

When I’ve seen Twelfth Night  in the past, Malvolio’s stylized pomposity in his early scenes seems just itching for a come-down, and his imprisonment is, if anything, slightly underplayed, upstage, making the cruelty of the hoax, while always bothersome, less prominent.  In this production, Malvolio is much more to the fore, partly because Dominic Cuskern is, quite simply, the most profound actor in the cast:  he has perfect comic timing and also the ability to convey intense, complex emotion.  The scene in which Malvolio is in prison, downstage, dirty, disheveled, anguished, bedeviled by the sense of injustice and mocked by the Fool to boot, is grim:  there’s nothing funny about it.  It’s fascinating the way a shift in an actor’s interpretation allows us to hear new meanings in Shakespeare’s words.

Canonically, comedies end in marriage, tragedies in death, and histories in a shift in power.  Twelfth Night  ends in two marriages — a comedy!  But when Malvolio’s wretched story is played forcefully and realistically, it drives home the awareness that Shakespeare’s plays defy neat categorical outlines.

Twelfth Night plays at the Pearl Theatre in New York City’s East Village through February 22, 2009

Next: Telephone by Ariana Reines, The Foundry Theatre