Awake and Talk!

"Actors walk a tightrope between great art and crap," proclaims Steven Berkoff in Shakespeare's Villains, his tongue-in-cheek analysis of Iago, Richard III, Macbeth, Shylock, Hamlet, and Oberon. The relationship between great art and crap is fortunately not so binary, the tightrope metaphor not sufficiently ambiguous. Actors don't often tumble unsalvageably into crap once they've fallen off the great art wire, and those who've dropped into the cesspool can certainly pull themselves out. A more apt metaphor might find actors toeing the divider down a highway, sometimes meandering off the double yellow line of great art, swerving to avoid oncoming traffic, veering into the underbrush, then returning to the path.

Berkoff, whose theater résumé lacks only a knighthood for thespian cred points, disregards the tightrope anyway, freely mixing into this "master class" anecdotes, acting notes, thin insights into the Bard's characters, and histrionic takes on the characters. The actor-driven Shakespeare vehicle has become a Public Theater staple. They've made bigger mistakes with the genre, letting Vanessa Redgrave stomp all over Antony and Cleopatra like a rogue elephant and Liev Schrieber mastermind a Hamlet for Fresh Kills. But Berkoff's directorless evening of commentary and one-man scenes may make you want to stick an apple in his mouth and roast him with cloves; he's that big a ham.

Hopefully, the intent of Villains is ironic, since it has the tone of cabaret drollery—part Olivier, part Bette Bourne. As Richard III, Berkoff mimes clouds lowering on his house, marches a dreadful march, wrinkles his wrinkled front, gallops in imitation of barbed steeds, and elaborately polishes an imaginary crown, tossing it around in his fingers before placing it on his head. Imagine Robin Williams playing charades and you'll get the idea. Questionable in a different way are Berkoff's crusty laments for the days when it was acceptable for Caucasians to "put on brown makeup" and play Othello (apparently he never heard about Patrick Stewart's race-reversed production) and his assertion that Hamlet's indecision indicates the prince has "become a woman." Of course Berkoff gripes about "political correctness" in the process, evidently unaware that views like his are the reason it was invented. His vilification of Hamlet as a "serial killer" is a big stretch, likewise Oberon for being "a drug dealer." He leaches the complexity out of Shylock, failing to note that the character's actions are all neatly justified except for the weird pound of flesh request (worth discussing as a literalization of a racial grudge). Contrasted with the hot oil treatment Marlowe gave the Jew of Malta, the grieving, embittered Shylock comes off almost equal to the loathsome Christians who torment him.

Aidan Kelly in Howie the Rookie: verbal pyrotechnics and a few scabies.
photo: Dona Ann McAdams
Aidan Kelly in Howie the Rookie: verbal pyrotechnics and a few scabies.

Details

Shakespeare’s Villains: A Masterclass in Evil
By Steven Berkoff
Joseph Papp Public Theater
425 Lafayette 212-239-6200

Howie the Rookie
By Mark O’Rowe
P.S. 122
150 First Avenue 212-477-5288

Lypsinka! The Boxed Set
By John Epperson
Westbeth Theatre Center
151 Bank Street 212-307-4100

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If Berkoff exuded more charm than menace it'd be easier to gloss over his antique values, but even in the context of silliness he expects awe. The night I attended, the audience took him utterly seriously, applauding rever-ently at each of his one (gasp) word (gasp) at (gasp) a (gasp) time iambic fits embroidered with ecstatic mime. Are Americans so gullible that we think any Brit actor who pronounces Coriolanus as "Coriolahnus" must be met with obeisance? Have we forgotten that England produced both Sir John Gielgud and Mr. Bean? Signs point to yes.


Just as Americans think the British can't be naff hams with Shakespeare, we let the Irish roam freely about the glen when it comes to narrative. So much fine literature has been birthed on the Emerald Isle that, like France and wine, sometimes a story seems better just because it's Irish. Take Howie the Rookie, a pair of monologues with an intersecting storyline about two young rakes.

Written by Mark O'Rowe, who follows Conor McPherson out of London's Bush Theatre to become this year's Irish sensation, the script has a lot going for it. Howie displays O'Rowe's great command of the glottal vernacular spat by his Irish toughs. The first juicy tale consists of a revenge plot by a group of thugs who are trying to locate "the Rookie," a guy they deduce has passed a case of scabies to their ringleader, "the Peaches," through a mattress. The Peaches suffers terribly from bad ointment and bollock shaving, and the gang wants to make the Rookie pay for causing his pain. In the process, gang member "the Howie" (everyone gets a determiner) shirks his baby-sitting responsibilities and fends off the affections of a big girl nicknamed Avalanche as he pursues the Rookie. The Howie comes to regret his thirst for blood when a terrible accident occurs. In the second monologue, the Rookie describes his other faux pas, the accidental murder of a pair of Siamese fighting fish owned by a very dangerous underworld figure named Ladyboy, and how the Howie, with little to lose after the first monologue's tragedy, goes to bat for him. Aidan Kelly and Karl Shiels bark out the text at a speed barely comprehensible to the Yankee ear, lending the play the freshness and immediacy it needs to live. Sentence fragments and idioms explode under your seat like IRA pipebombs. "Ninnies over diddies, we're all acrumple, people lookin', laughin', a sight we must be," Howie says, describing a romantic interlude gone wrong.

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