It's a strange feeling to have a performer tell you he'd rather not be there performing for you. Yet that's what Danny Hoch does late in Taking Over, his latest one-man performance at Berkeley Rep, a tightly paced show that's as funny as it is unnerving.
After playing eight characters around the Williamsburg neighborhood of his native Brooklyn, Hoch simply emerges as himself. He talks about how surreal it is to be shopping at Whole Foods right where he saw a crackhead stabbed twenty years ago and expresses frustration about the gentrification of his neighborhood, which has already become clear throughout the previous character sketches. When he goes on to grouse about how he can't make a living doing his shows at home and has to take them to places like Berkeley where he's an exotic New Yorker, it's a little awkward. But that discomfort is startlingly effective.
This section seems to be the newest part of the show, because it's performed with pages on a music stand, whereas each of the characters seemed fully present, as if possessing Hoch's body. That's also why it's immediately obvious that this is Danny as Danny when he comes out wearing none of the jackets, hats, or other accoutrements he's been using over his basic black trousers and T-shirt. He so completely inhabits his characters' physicality that you get a good sense of who they are before they open their mouths. So when all those characteristics are stripped away it's equally apparent that he's about to address the audience directly. It works as a device, as if he's performing spoken word at an open mic night, but it's the least polished part of a superb patchwork of portraits of the changing face of Williamsburg.
It's also indispensable for its very rawness. We get the point anyway: The old neighborhood has been colonized by these hipsters from California with their cafes and art galleries and skyrocketing rents. But as a late-breaking thesis statement, the personal angle grounds and adds nuance to a piece that might otherwise be simply an often hilarious, sometimes heartrending collection of discrete performances, a virtuosic "these are the people in your neighborhood" acting exercise. But having Danny in the mix as well is a healthy reminder that this shit is real, and it's a lot more complicated than some of the more comical characterizations might make you think.
As the founder of the Hip-Hop Theater Festival, Hoch's chameleon-like ability to convey different voices has only become more sharply honed since the debut of his Jails, Hospitals and Hip-Hop rocked the Julia Morgan as part of Berkeley Rep's 1997 season.
Hoch ambles in past the audience with a bottle of beer in hand and takes the mike under a "¡Celebrate your community!" banner with multicolored handprints in front of some old brownstones (the slick scenic and costume design is by Annie Smart, overlaid by scene-shifting video projections by Alexander V. Nichols). He drunkenly harangues the crowd as Robert, a grad student who's half Puerto Rican and half Polish, just like the neighborhood used to be, telling the out-of-staters to "get the fuck out." It turns out Robert's family has been priced out of its home and has to leave, just as the area is becoming a nicer place to live.
Fade to Francque, the least fleshed-out character, an unctuous French real estate agent showing some Californians a fancy condo well insulated from the rabble. Then cut to Marion, a fifty-year-old African-American block mother sitting on her stoop and keeping her neighbors' kids out of trouble while she chats about being invisible to the rich kids at all the new French cafes. It's hard not to adore Marion, as it's impossible not to feel for Kiko, a desperately eager-to-please ex-con trying to ingratiate himself with the people shooting a movie on his block. When Kiko's rage and frustration starts to leak through his equally sincere if awkward friendliness, it's hard to even breathe until the wince that passes for a smile twists his face again.
Boorish real estate baron Stuart is a riot, multitasking yoga exercises as he holds forth about all the good he's doing by advancing the Darwinian progress of the ungrateful neighborhood. "I should get the fucking Nobel Prize for real estate." Also very funny are the Dominican taxi dispatcher making fun of the Puerto Rican and Mexican drivers in supertitled Spanish and greeting call-in customers in syrupy singsong English, privileged hippie street-vending carpetbagger Kaitlin, and self-styled revolutionary socialist rapper Launch Missiles Critical. Then comes Danny, but he doesn't give himself the last word. Instead we return to Robert, who expresses the same complaint with more beery pathos than would be prudent for the author to express as himself. When Robert laments that he feels like a tourist in his own neighborhood, he's only saying what Hoch has us all thinking.
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