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Mr. Berkoff, Please Take Center Stage : The British Playwright Offers a Rare Solo Turn in the Footlights for UK/LA Fest

October 12, 1994|JAN BRESLAUER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles has been good to Steven Berkoff. The edgy British actor-playwright-director, best known for his virulent portraits of working-class anomie, has staged many of his plays here--including "Acapulco," "East" and the long-running "Kvetch," all at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble.

But he's almost unknown as a thespian.

In fact, although Berkoff is a popular staple of the British stage, he's been on the boards only once in L.A., in "Decadence" in 1984. And he's never before performed a solo show in the United States.

Until tonight, that is. Berkoff's "One Man" is part of "3X3: Great Solo Performances," a UK/LA 1994 festival event that included last weekend's presentation of Lynn Redgrave's "Shakespeare for My Father," as well as this week's performances of Miriam Margolyes' "Dickens' Women," all at UCLA's Freud Playhouse.

The frequently outspoken Berkoff has been known to rail against the Establishment and other targets, but he goes surprisingly easy on L.A. "I've always liked working in L.A.," he says, speaking by phone from his London home. "It's an environment that I find stimulating and responsive. Since they don't have so much theater, there is often a keener appreciation and more open-mindedness about new ideas and new drama."

*

Berkoff's performance is being co-produced by UK/LA, the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts and L.A. Theatre Works' Susan Albert Loewenberg, who first brought Berkoff to L.A. in 1982 with "Greek," which the writer directed at the Matrix Theatre. Loewenberg also produced Berkoff's "Agamemnon," which the writer directed for the Olympic Arts Festival, and "Decadence," which Berkoff performed in as well as directed, both in 1984.

"I've been looking for opportunities to bring him back, but I felt that the theater scene here was so hopeless," says Loewenberg, who first saw Berkoff's "One Man" in London last Christmas. "He is one of the great physical actors of his generation, and it's nowhere more in evidence than in this show."

Berkoff, the 57-year-old child of Russian Jews, grew up in East London. His numerous works for the theater include an adaptation of Franz Kafka's "The Metamorphosis" that featured Roman Polanski in Paris in 1988 and Mikhail Baryshnikov on Broadway in 1989. Berkoff himself often performs in his own stage plays, and he has also acted in a range of films, from "A Clockwork Orange" to "Rambo: First Blood, Part II" to TV movies.

"One Man," which Berkoff performed in London's West End and at various other places around England late last year and through the beginning of this year, consists of three short works: Edgar Allan Poe's "The Telltale Heart" and Berkoff's own "The Actor" and "Dog."

Berkoff sees Poe's tale of a man who buries a body underneath the floorboards as a "study of obsession." It's also a vehicle that allows the versatile actor to demonstrate "an A to Zed of acting techniques, a compendium of styles."

"The Actor," inspired in part by a Marcel Marceau mime piece, portrays an actor making his way along the treadmill of unemployment. Berkoff walks continuously as he tells this story of the endless process of auditioning. "Actors are vulnerable and giving, and they're ruthlessly exploited," he says.

More so than the other two works in "One Man," "Dog" features an archetypical Berkoff character--an aimless thug--and his pit bull. The versatile Berkoff plays both the boozing "yob" and his pooch, Roy.

Before coming to L.A. for "One Man," Berkoff was performing a double bill of two of his one-act plays in London: "Sturm und Drang," a parody on greed done in rhyming verse, and "Brighton Beach Scumbags," a story about four working-class people who take a trip to Brighton. The title of the latter is a jab at Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs."

Yet though he's been busy, Berkoff is always eager to play here. "In L.A., without the background of traditional drama, there is a more rapid appreciation of the radical movements. People are not strangled by tradition. They just see what is there and absorb it."

Yet Berkoff is not without criticism of his West Coast base. "What I regret is that in such a large city as Los Angeles there are not more professional theaters," he says.

But the greater problem may be the market economy that allows few theaters to survive. "It's terrible that there shouldn't be at least six huge theaters that are subsidized," says Berkoff, alluding to the British system that supports stage companies such as the Royal National Theatre. "All subsidy pays off. You get a more equitable society, and you preserve the great artistic traditions.

"When you go for the market, you're always playing to the idiots, the lowest common denominator and you get schlock," Berkoff continues. "You subsidize until people have the chance to get used to you."

* "3X3: Great Solo Performances," Steven Berkoff's "One Man" (today and Friday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m.); Miriam Margolyes' "Dickens' Women" (Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m.); Freud Playhouse, UCLA. $25. (310) 825-2101.

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