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A CurtainUp Feature

Laughing at Shakespeare's Villains
with Steven Berkoff

By Elyse Sommer

Editor's Note: This feature was done during Mr. Berkoff's appearance at Joe's Pub. He returns, but to one of the Public Theatre's regular theaters, the Anspacher for 17 performances, from 1/10/01-1/28/01. This will probably prove a more appropriate environment. While the setting is different, the show is the same as the one we wrote up. Performances are Tues-Sat at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm
Steven Berkoff<
Steven Berkoff
Steven Berkoff is one of those Renaissance men of the theater who acts, writes and directs. His multi-faceted, international career encompasses original plays such as East, West, Decadence, as well as some with catchy titles like Kvetch and Brighton Beach Scumbags. One of his most popular and widely produced shows, a one man performance piece entitled Shakespeare's Villains: A Masterclass in Evil is being presented over two four-day weekends Joe's Pub.

Shakespeare? Master class? At a cabaret venue? Forget that masterclass label and you'll find that this isn't some strange mismatch of material and venue. What Berkoff has wrought from his fascination with the Bard's Bad Boys (and gals) -- Iago, Macbeth and his lady, Richard III, Shylock, etc. etc. -- is very much a cabaret act. In fact, the standup routine about Shakespeare's best-known villains works better than his periodic metamorphoses into the characters he spoofs. Thus, if you park the expectations raised by the title at the door and don't expect a highbrow lecture, you'll enjoy Berkoff's irreverent mix of Comedy Central patter and full of camp acting demonstrations.

Mr. Berkoff makes up for the missing insights into Shakespeare's most complex characters and how to portray them, with his zany energy and amusing anecdotes. These range from some of the most famous Shakespearean interpreters to how Shakespeare challenges the actor who "cannot call himself an actor unless he has hauled himself up Shakespeare's "great mountain of verse, climbing those iambic pentameters, getting his foot stuck into those rhyming couplets."

The first villain to get the Berkoff treatment is Iago -- "a mediocre villain . . .somebody who is jealous of all your achievements." If he were Oedipus, his envy of Othello's great love would want to make him tear out the Moor's eyes. "but he's not Oedipus. . .he hasn't got that kind of courage.""

Iago's mediocrity, takes us to the "genius villain" like Richard III who "can say 'cut off his head" with the same inflection as 'two more lumps of sugar'. After a long Richard III passage, Berkoff segues into a discussion of the ghosts of great performances that haunt actors undertaking such coveted villains' roles and which seed all sorts of variations of the originals -- like Ian Mckellan's Nazi Richard and Al Pacino's filmed search for the character.

When we get to Macbeth, the agile Berkoff nervily plays the villainous Lady as well as her husband. And so it goes. He defiantly plays Shylock without the modifications of "political correctness." He also trains his lens on people we don't think of as villains, like that sweet prince, Hamlet. Hamlet and his mother, pave the way for Coriolanus and, finally, Oberon whom he calls "Shakespeare's first drug pusher" with Puck his runner.

Does this jokey combination of performed scenes interspersed with standup comedy work? For me the scenes seemed shoehorned into the more successful standup. But judging from the laughter permeating the packed Joe's Pub, Mr. Berkoff's master class should have plenty of students signing up for its brief run.

Shakespeare's Villains will be performed November 9-12, 2000 and 15-18th, 2000 8 p.m.) at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival's Joe's Pub, -- 425 Lafayette St. (Astor Place/4th St). Tickets, $25, at the box office of 239-6200.

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