"Twelfth Night" and "I, Malvolio" at ACM Theater, Art Tower Mito

This article was originally published in the Japan Times newspaper on Feb 4 2015.

Over the past decade, Shintaro Mori has made a name for himself in Japan’s theater world as a director with a passion for plays in translation. So, true to form, next month at the ACM Theater in Art Tower Mito he is staging a double bill comprising Shakespeare’s comedy “Twelfth Night” (or “What You Will”), which was written around 1601-02, and an adaptation of “I, Malvolio,” by the contemporary English playwright, director and actor Tim Crouch.

Since he directed “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the same Ibaraki Prefecture venue in 2012, Mori has been eager to return, he said in a recent interview, having observed how its thrust stage and circular auditorium modeled on London’s 16th-century Globe Theatre made it well-suited to staging the Bard’s comedies.

Then, while studying in Ireland, Mori saw “I, Malvolio,” the fourth of Crouch’s Shakespearean adaptations that began with 2003’s “I, Caliban.” In that series, by reimagining one of a play’s “secondary” characters, Crouch aims to connect Shakespeare with young audiences via narratives that don’t always revolve around kings and queens, but deal with “common folk.”

Since then, Mori, 38, said he’s always had it in mind to put together a “Twelfth Night” double bill that would “exploit the narrative and spatial contrasts between a full-scale production of that work which crosses gender roles” — along with one in which “the play’s gallows humor and Malvolio’s passions take center stage.”

Malvolio, Shakespeare’s puritanical and pompous butler, servant to Countess Olivia, falls from grace after being tricked into wooing her. “Most notoriously abused,” Malvolio exits the play with the famous line: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you.”

Mori’s productions marks the first time a double bill of Shakespeare and Crouch has been seen in Japan. During the auditions for “Twelfth Night,” which Mori has dubbed a “crazy love comedy in confusion,” he came across “two manly women” — Sayako and Fumika Kirihara — whom he cast, respectively, as Orsino, a young man at first pining for Olivia, and Sebastian, lost twin brother of the play’s aristocratic protagonist, Viola.

He then chose male actors to play Olivia (Koji Sawada), Viola (Teruya Mori) and Maria (Yusuke Kobayashi), Olivia’s upwardly aspirational lady-in-waiting, in a gender-reversing bid, he said, “to make the performance more carnival-like.” In addition, he selected 14 other cast members from members of the ACM’s Future Support Project set up to nurture young local artists.

Malvolio will be played in both shows by veteran actor Yoshimasa Kondo, who explained recently that though he studied “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as a trainee at Tokyo’s venerable Seinenza theater company — and also worked on “Hagelet” (“Bald Hamlet”), Satoshi Suzuki’s spoof version of “Hamlet” — this will be his “debut in Shakespeare and the one-person-show genre.”

However, the actor — who appeared in Koki Mitani’s hit 2003 play “University of Laughs” — expressed his excitement at working with Mori in one of his favorite theaters — while jokingly speaking of his fear of treading new ground. In particular, he noted, “I, Malvolio” requires audience participation and, though apprehensive, Kondo said he is eager to explore this relationship with the audience — “though it is unknown until I actually get up on stage.”

For Mori, it is Kondo’s ability to mix wit and grit that marked him out for the role, since in “I, Malvolio,” he said, “The actor is asked to spit his poison on the audience, enacting the character’s desire for bloody revenge — while also charming them with his winsome humor.”

For sure, this double bill is set to surprise audiences in more ways than one.

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