- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 1, 2003

"Shakespeare's Villains: A Masterclass in Evil," a one-man show written and directed by actor Steven Berkoff, is an offbeat and funny riff on the motivations, pathologies and nervous tics of the Bard's bad guys.
Howitzered into the audience by a hyperactive theater vet who actually has portrayed a number of them, "Masterclass" may not be terribly deep, but if you are craving some intellectual humor or a brief respite from these times that try men's souls, hie thee to the Studio Theatre. Mr. Berkoff has been there for a mere two weeks, but if you don't catch his show by tomorrow, it is gone.
If you have never heard of Mr. Berkoff, join the crowd. He is one of those impossibly multitalented British thespians who has made a decent living for years by digging into "character parts," mostly playing nasty villains on stage and screen. He has, however, other real-life roles up his sleeve, spending plenty of time on the other side of the stage writing and directing. He wrote "Kvetch," the funniest farce most people have never seen.
Leaping, prancing, grimacing about the stage in his current effort, Mr. Berkoff dishes on the furtive existence of Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights, the perversities of history, the nuttiness of life in the theater, the pervasive influences of iambic pentameter and Sir Laurence Olivier, and, oh, yes, those dastardly villains who are always more interesting, it seems, than William Shakespeare's unaccountably dumb and flaccid heroes.
In his first stanza, Mr. Berkoff theorizes that Shakespeare's villains can be sorted into several types, but he only explores a couple of them, the "mediocre" villain (Macbeth, Iago), and the "genius" villain (Richard III).
By the second half of the show, however, he seems to forget his taxonomy, and no further categories materialize, although he does accuse Hamlet of being a villain for all the mayhem he causes, branding him "Shakespeare's greatest mass murderer."
Apres-theater, this villain stuff is great to ponder at Starbucks over a tall, double-shot, no-whipped cafe mocha, particularly if you forgot to bring a date. Maybe Mr. Berkoff should have gone further …
Shakespeare, you figure, tapped into many a rogue's cranium in his plays, but surely he would have a field day today. After all, we have just wrapped up the most destructive century in the history of mankind. As the 21st begins, we get to contemplate the prospect of complete mass extinction by raving lunatics who begin to make Adolf Hitler look like a slightly overzealous missionary.
Mmm, too much caffeine at this hour of the evening causes the imagination to shift into overdrive. What if Shakespeare were actually right here in Starbucks agonizing over an idea for a new hit play?
Writing a good play begins with setting up a world-class conflict, and that is where Shakespeare would start. He surely would observe that today's world abounds in villainy, particularly of Mr. Berkoff's "mediocre" sort. Take the French and German foreign ministers. Please.
On second thought, maybe they are Hamlets dithering, self-involved, passively evil. But that would make them according to Mr. Berkoff's typology, mind you mass murderers. While the Germans and French have on occasion fallen to mowing down each other en masse, there were also decades in which they lived peaceably side by side, and we musn't let our current frustration lead us to judge them too harshly. Moreover, verisimilitude is important in writing a play, and mass murder in Germany? Who'll believe that?
Besides, our "allies" are attendant lords. They'll do, perhaps, to swell a progress, start a scene or two, but Prince Hamlets they are not, nor were meant to be. For heightened drama, Shakespeare might consider employing more accomplished villains, such as Osama bin Laden. One wonders how the Bard would have treated bin Laden's daring escape from the infidels besieging Tora Bora.
Imagine, with precision-guided munitions incoming and the Scourge of the West's precious life in grave peril, he finds that his only way out is on foot or by horse over treacherously snowy mountain passes. He is aware that the CIA might be eavesdropping on his cell phone conversations. The tension builds. But soft an idea. Why not trade cell phones with his bodyguard and split in the opposite direction?

(Alarums. Helicopter gunships in the distance.)
(Enter OSAMA)

OSAMA: A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!
BODYGUARD: Withdraw, my Lord! I'll help you to a horse.
OSAMA: Knave, I'll trade phones with you instead,
And then will stand the hazard of the die.
Those six Apaches, fearsome in the sky
Wilt then, perforce, blast you instead of me!
Your horse! Your horse! Osama wants your horse!

Osama, though, has been elusive of late. Shakespeare might soon conclude that the axis of evil affords more fertile ground for his imagination as he warms to his task. He might first consider and then eliminate the Iranians from his potential dramatis personae. After all, it's beginning to seem that they are quite capable of kicking their own bad guys out of power, so where is the fun and tragedy in that? Furthermore, if history messes up your plot, your backers might bail out. Scratch the Iranians.
Kim Jong-il. Now there's more promising territory. A dark, mysterious country in the far north. A cold and misty evening near the stroke of 12. The savior of his people, the Dear Leader, cannot sleep this night. Something troubles him. Something is rotten in Pyongyang. As he strolls toward historic Taedong Gate with his only friend in the world, Mini-Kim, they suddenly espy a mysterious figure hovering near the gate's granite base.

MINI-KIM: Look, my Lord, it comes!
KIM: Workers and servants of Marx, defend us!
Be thou a Spirit of health, or Goblin damn'd?
GHOST: I am thy Father's Spirit,
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night
Till the foul crimes done in my days of Nature
Are burned and purged away. Meanwhile, the Yanks,
I know not how, have found the secret nukes
That you and I so cleverly concealed.
'Tis enough to make your crewcut locks to start,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porcupine.
KIM: Oh, Lenin!
GHOST: Revenge this foul and most unnatural deed!
Now get you home and throw th'inspectors out,
And smash those monitors and break the seals.
To fool the press, be slippery as eels
And tell them one and all it's Bush's fault.

Now that's a back story offering a plausible explanation for recent events, Will thinks. But still … Kim is hardly fashion-forward. And besides, people don't much believe in ghosts anymore, the Gary Hart presidential campaign notwithstanding. No. We need a bigger villain, a better villain. Mr. Berkoff mentioned Saddam Hussein in passing, opining that he, along with Hitler, was potentially right up there with genius villains such as Richard III. It's hard to argue with that.
Saddam Hussein is a really dedicated bad guy who has gassed tens of thousands of Iranians and thousands of his own Kurds, while disappearing hundreds of Kuwaitis and fouling the environment worse than Exxon ever did. Why, he has got the United Nations demanding that the United States prove he possesses weapons of mass destruction after he has used them. And he has inspired thousands of college kids to demonstrate in his favor. And that means traffic snarls. And drum circles. He is diabolical.
But Shakespeare seems troubled. Too much carnage on stage has begun to bother him. The critics were uncomfortable with "Hamlet." And he doesn't even want to think about the bloodbath in "Titus Andronicus," which he actually wrote with a couple of other guys in the dorm one night when he didn't have anything better to do. The newspapers made mincemeat out of that one, so to speak.
So Will decides to try something novel. Why not work backward from the new play's conclusion? Colin L. Powell and Donald H. Rumsfeld are picking their way through the still-smoldering ruins of Saddam Hussein's 42nd presidential palace when they spot a strange object in the troubled earth.

RUMMY: Here's a skull now; this skull has lain in the earth
Three and twenty days.
POWELL: Whose was it?
RUMMY: An evil guy's it was. Whose do you think it was?
POWELL: Nay, I know not.
RUMMY: This same skull,
Sir, was Saddam's skull, the world's rogue.
POWELL: Alas, poor Saddam! I knew him, Rummy: a fellow
Of infinite greed. Where be his gibes now?
Imperious Hussein, dead and turn'd to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that this fiend who kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!

That's a wrap. Will is pumped. This will be hot. He turns to a fresh piece of legal paper (he is out of foolscap) to begin the first act of "Saddam, An Epic Tragedie in Five Actes." For inspiration, he orders a grande cafe Americano. Mean while, his companion, convinced he is seeing things, gulps down that last drop of cafe mocha, stuffs his hat on his head and wobbles pensively out into another frigid Washington winter's night.
("Shakespeare's Villains: A Masterclass in Evil" runs today and tomorrow at the Studio Theatre, 1333 P St. NW. Tickets range from $30.25 to $44.25. Call 202/332-3300.)

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