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Fool for the ages

Whether starring as a zany extraterrestrial or as a Shakespearean cad, John Lithgow is a . . .

September 18, 2007|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, ENGLAND — THERE'S something that seems deliciously appropriate here about drafting an American to play one of Shakespeare's grandly obnoxious fools. Typecasting, of course, my dear. But think of the time we'll save on rehearsals.

Of course, signing John Lithgow guarantees you'll get more fool than you bargained for. Six feet, four inches of a guy who played a campy space alien for six seasons and a transsexual ex-football player. You want a big, brash fool? You want a fellow the audience will love to see brought down, a guy who falls down so hard he'll scare people when he gets back up again?

Lithgow's your man.

In the end, when the American came to the inner sanctum of the British stage, in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of "Twelfth Night" that runs here in Shakespeare's birthplace through Oct. 6, it was the American who took home the raves. Lithgow "turns out to be one of the greatest Malvolios I have ever seen," the Daily Telegraph said of what was otherwise a "trite, reductive reading" of the oft-performed play. The Guardian found the production "odd and arbitrary," but Lithgow, it said, gave a performance "dazzling in any context" that "justifies the evening."

So much for transatlantic snobbery. None of which Lithgow has been feeling personally as he has journeyed back and forth to rehearsals in London on the Tube with the rest of the English working sods and has honed his comedy and his rage for his first Shakespearean performance in 32 years.

"I was instantly excited by the offer. It's rare that I instantly feel an electric charge like that; it's just unheard of, I can't even think of an American actor who's played a major role at Stratford in Shakespeare. It's just kind of a closed shop. . . . I felt like I'd been invited to the very top of the food chain," Lithgow, 61, said during a chat in his dressing room earlier this month.

"They've been extraordinarily welcoming to me, this group. They're huge fans of '3rd Rock From the Sun,' for example. As daffy as that show was, they really appreciated what a brilliant piece of comedy it was," he said. "There are 30 British actors who could do Malvolio better than I, probably. But I think it's a wonderful injection of a different kind of energy to bring an American actor, especially an American actor with comedy chops, into a role like Malvolio."

Director Neil Bartlett's "Twelfth Night" turns Shakespeare's famous gender-switching story on its head by taking the already mixed-up roles and casting them cross-gender. Starting with Viola, who disguises herself as a man and falls in love with Orsino, only to find that Orsino's love object, Olivia, has fallen in love with her -- er, him -- Bartlett turns the screws another twist by casting a male actor as Viola. Then he casts a woman as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, the dimwitted dandy who's also making a play for Olivia, and assigns women too as Andrew's pint-guzzling pals.

It all makes for some interesting homoerotic undertones, in addition to the ones Shakespeare may have intended, and plays, moreover, on the fact that women's parts in the Bard's day were played by men anyway (thus making it only natural that Viola should be a man playing a woman playing a man).

"Why should the often-discussed ambiguities of the love stories of the play be only of the boy-on-boy variety?" wondered Bartlett, who recently staged an adaptation of Dickens' "Oliver Twist" for the American Repertory Theatre in Boston, New York and Berkeley, in a production notes interview.

Angry butt of the joke

As Lithgow sees it, merrymaking with sexual identity was a staple of Shakespeare from the beginning. "Shakespeare was fascinated by transgender casting. He was presented with it as a convention, a fait accompli, and he fiddled with it. If you listen to the language of 'Twelfth Night,' 'All's Well That Ends Well,' 'As You Like It,' 'Cymbeline,' they go on and on, all these 'trouser roles.' Even Falstaff dresses as a woman in the 'Merry Wives of Windsor.' He loves the comedy and the complexity and the sexual excitement of it."

In "Twelfth Night," the actor says, "there are these electric moments when Orsino suddenly thinks, 'Why am I so fond of this young boy? Now, that works on two or three levels. He's fond of him because, in fact, he's a girl. But perhaps he's fond of him because he's a boy. Shakespeare was fascinated by that. And Neil, a gay man himself, I think is fascinated by the pansexuality of the play."

Against the backdrop of all this gender interplay comes the prissy, prudish and yet lascivious character of Malvolio, played in true strutting, imping, over-the-top Lithgow style.

As the steward to Olivia who fancies himself one day partnered to his mistress, his lofty and lusty secret ambitions are dragged hilariously into the open by a faked letter purporting to be from a love-struck Olivia. Malvolio and his ruin provide the ultimately dark back story to this otherwise frothy tale of mixed-up flirtations.

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