Opened Jan. 16 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage
Hoch’s solo artistry takes `Over’
Three stars Brilliance and brio
Let there be no question about Danny Hoch’s genius. To throw around a few adjectives, the man is fascinating, funny, provocative, entertaining and powerful.
His new solo show, Taking Over, now having its world premiere on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, is more than just a collection of deft characterizations and finely tuned accents.
Taking Over, directed by Tony Taccone, is a real play about a real issue. Specifically, it’s about the gentrification of Hoch’s own neighborhood, the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. But the larger view of the piece has much more to do with American shortsightedness and greed as well as our blithe, unthinking adaptability.
In a hefty 100 minutes, Hoch plays nine characters (including himself) of different races, cultures and genders. Oddly, the only character that doesn’t quite convince is the one called “Danny, a performer.” But more on that in a minute.
The bookends of the show take place on a stage at the Williamsburg Community Day celebration. A native son, Robert, has hijacked the stage because he has something to say to all the newer residents, the ones who don’t belong there: “All you American crackers, get the f—out.”
He says it’s OK for the Hassidic Jews in the projects to stay. And the black folks, and the Italians, and the Puerto Ricans and the Poles, among others. But, basically, all the white people from anywhere else in the country have business in Brooklyn, so they should take their bars and galleries and cafes and over-priced baby stores and head back to the suburbs or the square states — or California — or wherever they came from.
Who really belongs in a city, to a city? Is it Francque, the French real estate magnate selling lofts with Manhattan views for a million-plus? Is it Marion, the black social worker who sits on her stoop interacting with her neighbors and simultaneously bemoaning the influx of high-priced eateries and waxing poetic about their almond croissants?
Is it Stuart Guttberg, a hugely successful developer with 3,000 vacancies to fill and a $300 million loan to pay back who wants to give new residents a safe neighborhood but “with the right level of zing”? Or maybe it’s Kaitlin, a sweet, dippy hippie from Michigan who peddles CDs and T-shirts from a cart on the street.
The most convincing argument comes from Kiko, whom we meet when he visits the movie location shoot just outside his apartment building. With his mother watching from a window above, Kiko approaches a production assistant and, all the while attempting to maintain his dignity, essentially begs for a show job so that his mother can see how he’s trying to get his life back on track now that he’s out of prison.
Hoch’s writing and acting synergize in this scene so powerfully, and the character becomes so vivid, so complex, it almost stops the show. Here is old-guard Brooklyn, someone who survived the drug-laden ‘80s and did his time as a result, and now finds his home to be squeezing him out.
The sea changes in Brooklyn are felt in all the scenes. A Dominican taxi dispatcher unleashes a torrent of bile and foul language across the radio to her drivers (in Spanish, no less, with supertitles projected on the set), then refuses to allow her siblings to speak anything but English so people don’t think they’re ignorant immigrants.
A rapper, Launch Missles Critical, who has nothing good to say about the new Brooklyn, finds his tough-guy stance somewhat diminished by having to perform in the only venue that will welcome him: a pretentious arts center.
Then there’s Danny, who drops the costumes (by Annie Smart, who also designed the effectively minimalist set) and the accents to talk about his ‘hood. But he does some from behind a music stand, and he reads his text. When he should be connecting with his audience personally, he’s hiding behind pages and a stand. It’s strange _ maybe he had just written the scene and hadn’t yet memorized it. Whatever the reason, the scene is dodgy. What Hoch has to say – about making art wherever you’re from, even if the people there are, in your opinion, ignorant – is important. How he’s saying it doesn’t work nearly as well as the rest of his show.
And his show’s ending, a return to Robert, the angry Brooklynite, delves into tricky emotional waters involving 9/11, and it seems separate from the rest of the show. There’s a whole soy milk monologue that seems to come from nowhere, and, if this scene really were happening on a public stage at a neighborhood community day, it would never be allowed. There’s a believability gap in a scene that’s already asking us to take an emotional leap that’s more of a stumble.
Even with its bumpy ending, Taking Over is an extraordinary evening spent in the company of one man who fills the stage with compelling people and a compelling argument for living a more examined life, wherever that life might happen to be.
Taking Over continues through Feb. 10 on Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $33-$69. Call 510-647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org for information.