“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.
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.
But for all the verbal pyrotechnics, street fighting, and graphic sex, Howie the Rookie lacks reflectiveness or transcendence. Surely lower-class characters aren’t all too thick to have a profound thought. O’Rowe gives us a good story, well told, with an excellent knack for detail, rhythm, and language. But he neither challenges our expectations nor deepens our understanding of the community he depicts, let alone the human condition. Perhaps the influence of reality-based TV makes O’Rowe want to leave the judgments to the audience. But a few of his own might give this piece, which tells so much more than it shows, a better reason to be onstage.
Lypsinka is another chatterbox, one who refutes Berkoff’s claim about actors by fashioning the tightrope itself out of crap. For more than a decade, the drag queen who speaks only in a barrage of movie dialogue and the banter of female song stylists has been weaving deliberately bad art from popular culture’s detritus. She emerged at a moment when DJ culture, lax intellectual property laws, and postmodern bricolage practitioners suggested that culture’s next wave would depend as much on curatorial skills as talent. (In the wave after that, you’ll recall, attractiveness and technology demolished any need for skill.)
In The Boxed Set, John Epperson’s alter ego is perfectly coiffed as a ’50s songstress—now with a wonderful twinge of fortyishness—who squeezes all the skill she can from pure artifice. As the first lady of found text lip-synchs to big band obscurities and Sunset Boulevard or Splendor in the Grass snippets, you find yourself marveling at everything that isn’t singing: Lypsinka’s ability to find and string together weird routines, her outfits and makeup, and especially her gestural work, an encyclopedia of splayed arms, extended fingers, beveled heels, exaggerated lips, and raised eyebrows. Lypsinka owes as much to kabuki as to karaoke, and maybe a bit to Cindy Sherman, with whom Lypsinka shares the will to explode the stereotype of put-together female stars who are falling apart inside.
The evening is as enjoyable as it is meta-enjoyable. When you applaud Lypsinka’s big numbers, you usually do so along with the applause from the original recording. The past invades the present, shattering identity, turning the audience into “Clapsinkas.” And you can get as much pleasure from watching Lypsinka’s hard-edged, spotlighted silhouette as from watching her directly. Though it might be interesting to see Lypsinka swerve her material a bit, into a wider variety of eras, longtime fans will still be tickled by the telephone routine, where a harried Lypsinka answers three constantly ringing telephones with random bits of dialogue. When Lypsinka belts out “I’ve got to be me!” in the voice of—is it Liza?—you’ve never heard a more hilariously false statement. Great art? Crap? Let Karl Wallenda decide.