Uneven Steven

The English actor-director Steven Berkoff is presenting a solo turn, Shakespeare’s Villains: A Masterclass in Evil. It is a curious grab bag centering on self-revealing soliloquies by the Bard’s baddies, but also containing ruminations and recriminations about plays, actors, directors, audiences, and such remoter villains as “Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and the critic of the Sunday Telegraph.” Even the central villains here are not quite the expected lot: yes, Iago, Richard III, Macbeth; but also Hamlet and Bill Clinton.

There are in these uninterrupted hundred minutes valuable insights, humorous anecdotes, pertinent and impertinent asides. Berkoff the thinker, like Berkoff the performer, is a quaint mixture: imposing and impish, incisive and silly. Under his funny but crude exaggeration lurks a kernel of shrewd common sense.

At the most inconsequential level, there are droll impersonations of Olivier, Gielgud, Al Pacino, and certain black actors doing Shakespeare. On a somewhat higher level, there are observations on British versus American actors, London versus New York audiences. The ribbing of various types of scholars and critics is both funny and useful. Even better things are touched upon, though the relationship between sex and violence in Shakespeare could use further elucidation. Finally, there is the performing of those great speeches or, as Berkoff calls them, arias. These are done with all kinds of rubatos, rallentandos, underlining, and overacting.

Still, those of us who, shuddering at some of his previous outings, think of “Berkoff” as Cockney rhyming slang have another one coming: Crassness in the service of a good cause may not be such a bad thing after all.

if proof were needed of the unimportance of genre, revenge tragedy would serve. It spawned both Thomas Kyd’s ridiculous Spanish Tragedy and Shakespeare’s sublime Hamlet. Somewhere in between falls The White Devil (1612), which, along with The Duchess of Malfi, keeps John Webster on our stages. BAM has seen fit to import the Sidney Theatre Company’s production of the former, as adapted and directed by Gale Edwards, one of the hotshots of today’s theater.

Miss Edwards’s two previous offerings seen here were a lamentable Jesus Christ Superstar and a pitiful Schiller Don Carlos. Two such diverse disasters – one modern, one classical – are almost sufficient to establish one’s standing as a major innovative director; this absurd rendering of The White Devil should clinch that reputation.

To be sure, this tragedy does not quite merit the sacrosanct status, and advance reports claimed for the production some respect for the text. Hope, however, was promptly dispelled upon sight, high up on the curtainless stage, of a spotlighted huge photo-portrait of a sullen black-leather-jacketed and skinheaded rock-star type, soon to be revealed as Paulo Giordano Ursini, Duke of Brachiano, the male hero of the tragedy.

Later on, that ten-foot-tall portrait was to be the one that Brachiano’s spurned wife, Isabella, regularly kissed on the lips, which, still later, smeared with poison, were to cause her instant demise, accompanied by a strangulated scream and a grand paroxysm. Poisons normally don’t act quite so hammily, and, where so large an area had to be envenomed, it might have revealed a smudge, foiling the lethal intent. Later yet, Isabella’s faithless husband and de facto murderer meets his doom by donning a poisoned helmet, but by that time I had long since fled BAM with a strangulated scream.

Webster could not write a coherent play, and was further limited, as Ian Jack argued in the March 1949 issue of Scrutiny, by offering “only the virtue of Hell: the courage of despair… . If we take evil away from Webster’s world, nothing is left.” Yet he could write wonderful passages, such as this one a biographer of Oscar Wilde used to evoke the hold on him of Lord Alfred Douglas: “Thou hast led me, like an heathen sacrifice, / With music and with fatal yokes of flowers / To my eternal ruin.”

As Scene One began, all was clear: Miss Edwards’s concept of a banished nobleman was someone lying stark naked in the gutter. Now, it’s true that Webster describes Lodovico as “decayed,” which could be the result of spending long hours naked among refuse, but since there is nothing of that in the text, I conclude that this is the director’s idea of adaptation. Bad as that is, her by-the-numbers direction was no better. Shortly later, Camillo, the heroine’s elderly and ineffectual husband, was enacted by a young beanpole of a bumpkin. And so on.

Against stark, barely minimal scenery, in elegant, no-particular-period costumes, the cast carried on with more determination than distinction. Both the heroine, Vittoria (Angie Milliken), and Isabella (Jeanette Cronin) were at least pleasant to look upon, and Michael Siberry (Duke of Florence) has a fine, booming voice, which should not, however, exempt him from acting. Jeremy Sims’s Flamineo, the evil manipulator, seemed to have wandered in from a clown show, and John Gaden’s Cardinal Monticelso conveyed a pedantic schoolmaster, more likely to find fault with Vittoria’s spelling than with her morals.

Most fascinating to me was that the dreadful music was the work of two composers, presumably so that each could put the blame on the other.

Of greatest interest about Kathleen Tolan’s “new comedy” (words the program waggishly prints upside down) is its title, The Wax. It derives from the fact that the heroine, on a weekend stay with her husband in a seaside hotel, is awaiting from the very outset a woman depilator to administer a bikini wax. By arriving on time, the depilatrix could have spared us the whole wretched play.

Anyhow, the title. Why is a nine-character comedy, full of all kinds of relationships – marital, extramarital, heterosexual, homosexual, incipient lesbian – entitled The Wax? Even if the Russian virago administering it holds forth about Chekhov and Pushkin. For that matter, why does a would-be bedroom farce also try to utter philosophic profundities?

Perhaps it is that the relationships we see remain unconsummated, whereas the waxing is consummated in full view, with little shrieks of agony from the waxee. The cast includes four of my least favorite performers, as well as the worthy Frank Wood and the not uninteresting Karen Young, who, under Brian Kulick’s uncertain direction, wane rather than wax.

Shakespeare’s Villains: A Masterclass in Evil
By Steven Berkoff.
Directed by Steven Berkoff at the Public Theater.
The White Devil
By John Webster.
Directed by Gale Edwards at BAM.

Uneven Steven