Photo by Debra DiPaoloAT THE LATE-AFTERNOON CUSP OF THE DINNER hour, Steven Berkoff slips into Tommy Tang's on Melrose, addressing the staff with a rolling Texas accent — a bit strange coming from a fellow who grew up in London's East End. (“I love the robust American sounds,” he says, as opposed to the “contact-evading” nasal vowels and glottal stops one hears from south-of-England tourists, whom he happily impersonates.) As we are seated, he brushes a baseball cap off his head, revealing cropped silver hair. His steel-blue eyes dart impishly as he turns highbrow, formulating Oxfordian phrases in a thunderous voice to describe the process of developing Shakespeare's Villains, his solo perform-ance now playing at the Odyssey Theater. He didn't start with a script per se, he mentions. Rather, he built it on his feet, on the stage, while employing a “se-cra-try.”
The performance is really a standup routine posing as a “master class”; it uses a septet of the Bard's villains as an excuse for Berkoff to take English stage icons, including Sirs Laurence O., Ian McKellen and Peter Hall (that “iambic fundamentalist”), stuff them all in a bag and rattle them around. Berkoff's villains are an array of gargoyles, while the women by their sides (yes, he plays them too) all come off as prissy divas. These gleefully over-the-top interpretations lead one to question how they would play over three or four hours of stage time in, say, Hamlet or Macbeth — though, even in his analyses of his characters, Berkoff may just be joking. What mostly emerges in watching Berkoff's performance, as in speaking with him, is a perpetually annoyed satirist, irritation being the source of his enormous wit.
Berkoff has been a frequent visitor here over the past couple of decades. This, combined with his eloquent observations — straddling a line between the rueful and the flippant — makes him a unique commentator on the landscape. Berkoff's description of Los Angeles comes tumbling out like a comedic prose-poem:
“I see a city of extraordinary and fascinating variety. I see the New World. I see an absence of stultifying tradition. I see possibilities and opportunities. I see a spirit of invention which is almost inexhaustible — even to the point of naiveté. It never ceases to amaze me how different this city is from any other. When I'm here, I feel I'm on another planet, an outer ring of Saturn, so I watch the people who are very much like normal people except they have a couple of genes missing, which curiously renders them rather charming. Maybe it's the water or the magnetic field which has created a new kind of Los Angeles brain. It seems to be bereft of the uglier forms of civilization or sophistication. Maybe it's the sun or the light. The maturing gene is not here, so everyone is in a state of arrested development, of enthusiasm. Like children, they all comment on what you're wearing. In London, nobody comments on what you wear — they think that's not important to you or your state of well-being.” (Berkoff is dressed in sneakers and dark running gear, by the way.)
IN ADDITION TO ACTING OR DIRECTING AT prominent venues in London, Paris, New York, Israel and Edinburgh, Berkoff was seen here two years ago in a drag turn as a suburban London hausfrau in his play Massage, also at the Odyssey. His farce about Jewish-American family life, Kvetch, which played at that same theater from 1986 through 1994, still ranks among the longest-running hits in local stage history. His haunting 1982 adaptation and staging of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis at the Mark Taper Forum is one of the few reverent entries on his résumé.
Among the many things that make Berkoff bristle are New York theater, commercial theater (same thing, really), the English in general, the London stage in particular, critics with no visual sense but with verbal dexterity to mask their shortcomings (he places former New York Times drama ace Frank Rich in this camp, holding him largely responsible for the “malaise that is now New York theater”), the prevalence of pop culture, and the consequent cruel irony that whatever fame he has comes from the villains he's played in pop-culture classics such as Beverly Hills Cop and Rambo: First Blood Part II.
Berkoff speaks from the perspective of someone who was enamored of the vitality in American theater during the '60s — he mentions the Living Theater's 1963 The Brig as having particularly inspired him — a vitality he feels exists now only on the fringes. “All the major work is being done at the edges,” he explains. “The mainstream is generally garbage. Look at the heavily subsidized theaters.”
The reasons for this, according to Berkoff, come from the rise of artistic directors who have never acted, and from the decline of the actor-manager system. “A great opera house isn't run by a director, but by a great administrator,” he explains. There are exceptions, Berkoff notes, citing Peter Brook, whose work he very much admires, and his L.A. host Ron Sossi, who “embraces a fairly catholic mixture of people and has no problem with whoever comes in. He doesn't feel threatened.”
Berkoff yearns for the bygone era when actors such as Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson were running theaters: “The great actors we had came from the actor-manager theaters. Not only did they create a team, they were the generals working with the soldiers. The boss is no longer there. Peter O'Toole left the theater because he didn't wish to be directed by [someone] who had never acted.”
But Berkoff does observe sparks of hope: “Jack Stehlin [coartistic director of Circus Theatricals, in residence at the Odyssey] is a very authoritative, idealistic and enthusiastic actor-manager. That's good to see. I think there is a spiritual awakening in people. It's happening in alternative literature, in poetry, in movies that are being shot for 50K. It's prevalent everywhere I go, and I travel the world. I sense this dissatisfaction that people are being spoon-fed cheap and shoddy culture from Hollywood movies, from nauseating plays about sofas and whining neurotics, from plays with revolving stages [a cinematic theater device, used largely in musicals, that Berkoff feels is an apology for the absence of choreography].
“I'm very resistant to most forms of theater,” Berkoff admits. “What I've seen in London has been so shocking . . . and the worst of it seems to go to Broadway, or to the big theaters in L.A.”
Berkoff shows me a journal he's working on, an opus, hand-written entirely in verse. “Writing is an antidote for loneliness,” he remarks, before slipping out into the dusk.
Shakespeare's Villains plays at the Odyssey Theater, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.; Thurs.Sat. at 8 p.m., Sun. at 7 p.m.; through September 12. (310) 477-2055.