Review: "Taking Over" at Kirk Douglas Theatre
With his bulging eyes, thick-set frame and New York strap-hanging demeanor, Danny Hoch probably isn’t the ideal conduit for impersonating multitudes. As actors go, he’s no tabula rasa. But this solo performance artist has a gift for counterfeiting ethnic styles. In his latest show, "Taking Over," which opened Friday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, he once again turns himself into a one-man melting pot.
The piece, written and performed by Hoch, continues the gritty exploration of cityscapes he took up in "Some People" and "Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop." Here, he animates Williamsburg, Brooklyn, an outer-borough neighborhood that has undergone quite a face-lift in recent years, transforming into a pricey hipster enclave with an art gallery and an espresso shop practically on every corner.
Hoch, who grew up in Queens, has started to feel outnumbered by the gentrifying armies that have invaded his Brooklyn 'hood. And while letting off some understandable socioeconomic steam about the gentrifying armies, he pays homage to the diverse voices that are being drowned out by the privileged post-college whiners, who don’t mind a little funky street life as long as it doesn’t clog up the lines at the new Whole Foods.
Robert, the character who kicks off Hoch’s parade of talking heads, doesn’t pull his punches when he grabs the microphone at the annual community day gathering. His family is about to be evicted, and he has a few choice expletives for all the "yuppie alternative-rocker, post-punk white people" who have caused rents to soar.
Sure, it’s great that supermarket produce has dramatically improved, but to all the "crackers" supposedly struggling to make ends meet while picking through "grilled marinated squid and fig salad," Robert wants to remind them that they "didn’t live through the crack epidemic" and that they have no idea what it's like to have the cops treat them as an enemy in a war zone.
What irritates him the most is the newcomers' "creative" exploitation: "Making sculptures on the sidewalk. Taking pictures of our kids playing in the fire hydrants and putting them in exhibits in Manhattan like we’re all animals in the zoo about to be extinct."
Of course, Hoch himself could be accused of a similar form of artistic colonization. After all, who gets to decide who’s a real resident and who’s a fake? Marion, the 60-something African American stoop dweller who can't help wryly noticing how today's rich kids like to "dress poor," might very well see Hoch in the same way he looks upon "the WASPy kid with a Midwestern accent and a faux vintage T-shirt."
Hoch does a better job of capturing Marion than he does a multi-tasking real estate developer on an exercise kick or a street-peddling airhead from Michigan. But would the real-life inspiration for Marion — and even if she’s a fictional composite, she’s a stand-in for a black woman from a specific milieu — enjoy being made an anecdote in a white artist’s show? Her theft of overpriced almond croissants at a trendy café is treated as a winning act of defiance, but if she got caught and didn’t have the $12 in her pocket she’d be seen as a shoplifter, even by all those sensitive picture-takers and performance artists who are somehow able to afford their specialty teas.
My grandmother grew up in Williamsburg, and shortly before her death two years ago at age 98, I described the bohemian renaissance that had transfigured her childhood streets. She was mostly unimpressed but let out a derisive laugh when I told her about the multimillion-dollar condos for sale in the area. She had seen too many parts of town change over the years to lay claim to any one ZIP Code, but this lifelong New Yorker also recognized the impoverishment of a city in which only the rich are welcome.
Hoch tries to combat criticism of his problematic ode to authenticity in a section in which, playing himself, he reads letters from people taking him to task for his shortsightedness. He fumbles repeatedly to articulate "the message of the play," but the sharp, hip-hop-inflected rhythms of his mimicry translate nonetheless into an often vibrant theatrical journey.
Directed by Berkeley Repertory artistic director Tony Taccone, the production rambles on about 20 minutes too long. But when Hoch is in full bilingual flight as a Latino taxi dispatcher or insurgently rapping as a Marxist radical known as Launch Missiles Critical, "Taking Over" reaches out to audiences in a capacious, 21st century Whitmanesque embrace.
-- Charles McNulty
"Taking Over," Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Feb. 22. $20 to $45 (213) 628-2772. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
(Photo: Danny Hoch in "Taking Over" at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Credit: Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)