‘One Man’ explores fierce ignorance of human soul
England’s Berkoff makes three appearances at the Freud
By John Mangum
Despite his success, Steven Berkoff still faces crippling
Sometimes they come from within, and sometimes they strike from
the outside. He wrestles with these internal and external demons in
his play "One Man," offering audiences a rare chance to encounter
him on stage.
The play marks his first solo performance in the United States.
Appearing at the Freud Playhouse Oct. 12, 14 and 16, the play comes
to Los Angeles riding the crest of a wave of good reviews of its
run last year at the Garrick Theatre in London.
Although active in Britain as a performer, writer, adapter and
director, Berkoff received most of his exposure on the West Coast
as the author of "Kvetch." The play enjoyed a long run at the
Odyssey Theatre Ensemble.
Unlike his other activities, solo performance gives Berkoff a
chance to examine himself as an actor, and human being.
"You’re exploring shapes, colors, values, the tones of your own
voice. You’re exploring your own body," says Berkoff. "It’s really
almost like a form of therapy. You’re able to take out all the
demons that are lying within."
Berkoff offers some of these demons along with much else in "One
Man." The play brings together three solo performances.
The first, an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s "Tell Tale Heart,"
reveals the solo performance as a "form of psychodrama" for
The psychology of the tale does not escape the actor. "It’s a
story about obsession," he says.
"It says that we’re all victims of a series of sensations that
keep us in check, that keep us civilized. Senses are the guardians
of civilized behavior."
When the senses become disturbed in "Tell Tale Heart," these
checks collapse, forcing a man to kill because he cannot handle the
sensory overload. Berkoff says, "You have a man who becomes
obsessed, sees something that haunts him, and cannot get rid of
"It terrifies him," continues Berkoff. "He feels that if he
kills this thing, he will get rid of his anxiety."
"This is what we call, in modern psychiatry, compulsive
disorder, and it’s a very familiar disorder now for which people
take drugs. If he’d had prozac, Edgar Allen Poe probably wouldn’t
have written the ‘Tell Tale Heart.’ "
In terms of "One Man", Poe’s tale provides Berkoff with an
opportunity to examine his own anxieties. "I have obsessions of my
own which can be equally crippling," says the actor.
Acting itself can even be called obsessive with performances
that are repeated night after night. Berkoff likens it to the boy
who could not stop washing his hands and people who have to brush
their teeth exactly 100 times.
"That’s the nature of acting," says Berkoff. "It’s a world of
The second segment of the play examines the main player in the
world of acting, the actor himself. Titled "Actor," the section
takes its idea from one of Berkoff’s many short stories.
"The actor never manages to cling and hold on to anything which
is fulfilling," says Berkoff. He uses physical action, in this case
continual walking, to represent the dilemma of the character.
The most recently created part of "One Man" follows "Actor,"
contrasting the commitment of the actor with what Berkoff describes
as "a man who’s enslaved to his dog."
The section titled "Dog" seems to display something that Berkoff
only touches on in the previous parts. " ‘Dog,’ " he says, "is a
symbol to me of almost the ferocious ignorance, the utter dumbness,
of the human soul."
Perhaps he encountered this "ferocious ignorance" for the first
time in what he says inspired "Dog." "I was fascinated because I
was reading in an English paper about the increasing number of
attacks on children by pit bulls and rottweilers. The Tory
government was paying no attention to it."
The originality of "Dog," "Actor" and "Tell Tale Heart" matches
the unique approach Berkoff takes to the stage itself. The absence
of any kind of set coupled with sparse lighting puts the focus on
the actor, something which Berkoff believes is very important.
"I am the set. The actor is always the set," he says. "To use a
set of any kind is always a betrayal of the actor."
Berkoff’s theatrical philosophy seems to be encapsulated in "One
Man." He explores aspects of his psyche and of the human soul in
this rare Los Angeles appearance.
"I’m happy to be here," Berkoff says with a certain edge to his
voice betraying that, perhaps, this is only half true.
THEATRE: "One Man" with Steven Berkoff. Oct 12, 14 and 16 at the
Freud Playhouse. Tickets $25, $9. For more info, call 825-2101.