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THEATER REVIEW : Berkoff's 'One Man' Delights in Kooky Ways

October 14, 1994|LAURIE WINER | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

As a performer, British director-playwright Steven Berkoff is an odd mix of brilliant mime, bawdy vaudevillian and obnoxious child. A really obnoxious child.

Best known here for staging his long-running "Kvetch" at the Odyssey Theatre, Berkoff's adaptations of Kafka, Aeschylus and Poe and his direction of Shakespeare plays have garnered him an international reputation. The repetitive, overly stylized vision that made several of his recent directorial efforts so tedious, including a 1989 "Metamorphosis" on Broadway starring Baryshnikov and last spring's "Richard II" at the Joseph Papp Public Theater in New York, somehow invest his one-man show, "One Man," with a hypnotic humor--weird, dark and totally original.

"One Man," which is part of the UK/LA Festival and continues tonight and Sunday night at UCLA's Freud Playhouse, has three parts. The first, a rendition of Edgar Allan Poe's "Telltale Heart," is the theatrical equivalent of a late-night reading by flashlight performed by an obsessed teen-ager trying out voices and meters and storytelling style, or, by a mental patient who's deliriously happy to portray a narrator so close to the bone.

Speaking in a clenched voice, Berkoff will inexplicably drop one word in a sentence to a slow-speed rumbling growl. His rhythms--he breaks up words to Philip Glass' metronome--his robotic movements, his elongated, variant giggles, his play with the text, are all true to Poe while remaining egocentrically Berkoff. And, like the ghoulish child that is lost to most of us, Berkoff takes special joy in physical tasks such as sawing off a leg while making noises to indicate he is cutting first through the flesh, then through the bone, then flesh again.

Looking like a deranged, New Age Vincent Price in shabby black tails and powder-white skin, Berkoff sticks out his red tongue and waves it for an improbably long interval at the word hell . Part of the comedy comes from his taking such an extraordinarily long time to do and say certain things, which makes this one-hour segment both very funny in parts but too long overall. Also, the pacing and mood don't shift at all during natural breaks in the story, such as when the murder is committed or when the police come. Berkoff seems wedded to his internal timing, regardless of what is happening in the story.

*

The second part, Berkoff's own piece called "The Actor," is a fascinating, bleak look at the treadmill of the actor who is perpetually "at liberty." Berkoff ambles along in a hilarious, stationary walk to the beat of a cool jazz riff. He throws congenial nods at fellow actors to whom he then gives the finger as soon as they're out of sight. He picks up women, marries them, divorces them, goes to visit his shrinking, elderly parents, never wishes another actor anything but failure and continually gets cut off at every audition for "Hamlet" with a brisk "Thank You!" while trying to sneak in just another word or two of a soliloquy. Berkoff plays all parts without missing a beat, which is how he makes entertainment out of such a bleak and shallow world.

Finally, "Dog" tells the story of a nasty punker and his even nastier dog, presumably a pit bull. Berkoff plays both parts and has a great bit when the master tries to teach the dog to sit quietly without sneering. This segment also features an extended routine involving barf, so go forewarned.

"What you have mistaken for madness is but an overactiveness of the senses," says Berkoff in the Poe part of the evening, perhaps explaining his affinity for the Gothic author. In "One Man," Berkoff offers his particular overactiveness; it makes a fine madness.

* "One Man," Freud Playhouse, UCLA Campus, tonight at 8, Sunday at 7 p.m. $25. (310) 825-2101. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

A UCLA Center for the Performing Arts, LA Theatre Works & UK/LA Foundation production. Written, directed, adapted and performed by Steven Berkoff. Lighting by Stuart Anderson. Production coordinator Paul Lamont.

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