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Living Large as He Pals With Bad Guys

Theater Review

Steven Berkoff goes way, way over the top in his catalog of calumny, 'Shakespeare's Villains.'

August 11, 1999|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The subtitle is "A Masterclass in Evil," so it's not like you're expecting Wilford Brimley, or Mr. Rogers. Make way for Mr. Evil, villain-for-hire Steven Berkoff, the actor with the gargoyle's voice and the blazing eyes, the man who puts the tense in intensity, for whom the concept of over-the-top has, in fact, no known top.

Berkoff's entertaining if somewhat monomaniacal new solo piece goes by the name "Shakespeare's Villains," now in a monthlong engagement at the Odyssey Theatre Ensemble. In it, the self-appointed instructor--whose widespread recognizability to movie audiences began with mid-1980s slimeball turns in "Beverly Hills Cop" and "Rambo"--holds court on the subject of Shakespearean dastards.

The show resembles an extended audition piece and, more intentionally, a grad-school seminar. Berkoff proves straight off he's not above such things as competitive sniping (no fan of Sir Peter Hall, he), stray gossip, the outlandish generalization. Everything we tend to like in our teachers, in other words.

Berkoff hits the stage sporting black trousers and black shirt. First up for discussion is Iago, the source of all the trouble in "Othello." Berkoff describes the character as the personification of seething "mediocrity." In passing, Berkoff bemoans the "ridiculous" politically correct winds currently blowing that prevent a white actor--Steven Berkoff, for example--from a chance at playing Othello. Can only virgins play Juliet? he asks. "I mean, how would you hold the auditions?"

After a bit of Berkoff's Iago, we're on to Richard III, the bad guy with "a brain like a laptop computer only without the headaches." This character's villainy is largely about impotence, in Berkoff's view, as well as not getting enough love as a child. Macbeth's downfall, by contrast, relates to his "womanly" indecision and his enslavement to Lady M.

In terms of complexity, Berkoff's not offering much. "Shakespeare's Villains" wants to sell us on the idea that Shakespeare wrote hissable, flat-out evildoers. Why? Because Berkoff thinks they're more fun to play, that's why. No psychological ambiguity for this actor. Berkoff deplores the humanized, sympathetic Shylocks of late, for example. Bring on the hand-wringing calumny!

The downside to his approach becomes apparent midway through "Shakespeare's Villains." In Berkoff's gleefully outsize characterizations, everyone comes off like a variation on the same all-purpose weasel, be he Hamlet (in Berkoff's view, a villain disguised as an introspective hero) or Oberon or Iago. On opening night, during his between-soliloquies patter, Berkoff substituted the word "understatement" for "overstatement" and then corrected himself. To say there's no risk of understatement with this show is, well, an understatement.

The best bit, paradoxically, is almost a throwaway: Berkoff's Coriolanus registers as a vivid, dramatically selective study in man-child political leadership. Elsewhere, the show's notion of villainy is all about surfaces and masks and actorly too-muchness. Berkoff revels in going too far; in his view, Shakespeare demands it.

Shakespeare's villains may be more nuanced than "Shakespeare's Villains" makes them out to be, but this is Berkoff's classroom, not yours.

*

* "Shakespeare's Villains," Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. (also 2 p.m. Aug. 29). Ends Sept. 12. $18.50-$22.50; students, senior rush, $5 off. (310) 477-2055. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

Steven Berkoff...Iago, Richard III, Macbeth, Shylock, Hamlet, Coriolanus, Oberon, Himself

Written and directed by Steven Berkoff. Lighting design by Nick Mattingley. Production stage manager Stephanie A. Coltrin.

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