What is it about bad guys that makes them so compelling for actors to play and for audiences to watch? In his one-man show “Shakespeare’s Villains,” veteran English writer and performer Steven Berkoff delves into this question by examining and occupying some of the bard’s most deliciously evil characters. In a performance that is part boldly interpreted Shakespearean scenes, part stand-up comedy and part academic analysis, Berkoff provides enough sporadic moments of brilliance to captivate the audience even though the piece — appropriately subtitled “A Masterclass in Evil” — never quite comes together as a unified play.
Berkoff begins with Iago, whom he dubs a “mediocre villain” whose successful plotting is based almost entirely on the weaknesses of his nemesis.
Establishing a pattern he will continue throughout, Berkoff first discusses where the character stands in the pantheon of villains, provides an anecdote or two about actors who have played the role, and ultimately provides a scene, in which he plays all the required characters, which sums up the points he has been trying to make.
If Iago is petty and mediocre, then Richard III is the “brilliant villain,” the mastermind who lets the audience in on his manipulations so we can watch his extraordinary gifts for destruction play out. Berkoff talks of how all villains lack fundamental compassion and are often driven by a lifelong lack of love. The actor/analyst here has it both ways: He ridicules the idea of explaining these complex creations with psycho-babble, and yet he also uses the same jargon for his own purposes.
The show is at its best when the attitude of Shakespeare’s characters spills over into Berkoff’s own persona. The actor can take on a devilish demeanor even in his more academic moments, relishing the titillating aspects of the Macbeth marriage or the outrageous possibilities of what tyrant Coriolanus might have said to Kenneth Starr. There is pleasure in saying things one knows can offend, and it is just this enjoyment that makes it clear there’s a bit of the villain in all of us.
Berkoff’s performance as Shylock is easily the most intriguing. He takes the ethnic stereotype to an extreme, contorting his cheeks and wagging his tongue lasciviously. Still, he captures the drama of Shylock’s dealing for a “pound of flesh” with a surprisingly human subtlety.
Berkoff uses exaggerated gesturing less successfully for other roles. At times his acting becomes a form of pantomime so over-the-top it distracts from the character he’s portraying, especially when he’s playing a female part. But it is also his unique physical flair that makes him an extraordinarily compelling performer.
Berkoff’s choices of which characters to include, and in what order, seem a bit random, and this exacerbates the main problem with the show — a lack of dramatic arc. It feels longer than it is, and it would probably benefit from an intermission. While labeling Oberon (from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”) and especially Hamlet as villains is offbeat and provocative, the arguments he makes for their inclusion are not fully convincing.
While Berkoff’s performance is highly entertaining and expressive, what the show most needs is a bit more discipline. That, of course, can be said of all villains too.