"Why do I feel like a fucking tourist in my own neighborhood!?!"
That is the angry, anguished cry of Robert, a Polish-Puerto Rican native of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who has seen the crime and neglect of his lifelong neighborhood remedied by a gentrifying influx of high-end restaurants, art galleries and expensive building complexes that have priced long-time residents out of their communities.
Encouraged by a few bottles of Brooklyn Lager, Robert has grabbed the microphone at a Community Day event in order to say a few words to all his new hipster and yuppie neighbors who have migrated to Williamsburg in recent years; "Did it ever occur to you to ask who lives here? If we wanted 37 new bars in our neighborhood in one year? Did you think to ask?"
Robert is one of eight creations solo performer/playwright Danny Hoch portrays in Taking Over, an exciting and discomforting piece of political theatre that, while certainly one-sided in its stance on gentrification issues, pulls you in with its intriguing and skillfully performed characters that see the changing neighborhood from different angles.
Some of people we meet have their own ways of adapting to change. Marion, an elderly black woman, sits on her stoop chatting with a friend about all the "resident tourists" enjoying expensive brunches at one of the four French cafes at one intersection ("I been in this neighborhood fifty years. Wasn't no brunch happenin' here. People were smoking crack! People were eatin' Ding Dongs for dinner.") and what happened when she gave in to temptation and entered one of them to buy a $4 almond croissant. In another scene a Dominican taxi dispatcher barks orders to his drivers in harsh, rapid-fire Spanish while speaking to white customers in friendly English tones.
In a brashly comical scene, a rapper named Launch Missiles Critical advises his fellow revolutionaries at the Galapagos Art Space to join him to moving to Canada, where health care is free, gay marriage is legal and, "property values is ridiculous now!" The most pitiable moments come in a scene where a volatile fellow named Kiko ties to get in good with an AD on a film shooting on his block, trying to charm his way to get any kind of work.
Newcomers to Williamsburg - a hip French real estate agent, a middle-aged Jewish developer and an NYU dropout selling her art work on the street - are given their say, but they come of primarily as objects of ridicule.
Under director Tony Taccone, Hoch's transformations from character to character are exacting, complete and done with minimal costume pieces, as supplied by Annie Smart. Smart also provides the set design that can cleverly switch from the exterior of a run-down brick building to the inside of a costly exposed brick apartment. Composer Asa Taccone, sound designer Walter Trarbach and lighting and projection designer Alexander V. Nichols bring vibrant energy to scene transitions.
Toward the end of the 100 minute piece, Hoch speaks to the audience as himself and explains his own personal conflicts regarding the changes in his neighborhood. Aside from actually liking the assorted cheese plate at the Sardinian Wine Bar, Hoch earns most of his living performing on the road and rents out his Williamsburg apartment to tourists for $1,700 a week. He reads what seem to be actual letters from past audience members, criticizing his show for being negative, divisive and alienating. ("Why can't you be more like Anna Deavere Smith?") But perhaps those are the qualities that make Taking Over so effective. It's good to feel uncomfortable at the theatre when the reason isn't because your seat is hard and there's no leg room.
Photo of Danny Hoch by Joan Marcus
"Less is More," might be an appropriate advertising slogan for this year's edition of Cirque du Soleil's Wintuk, now making its second annual visit to Madison Square Garden's WaMu Theatre. Last year's premiere edition, created and directed by Richard Blackburn was an ambitious but muddy spectacle bogged down by an indecipherable, ritualistic story. This year's director, Fernand Rainville, reshapes the evening thusly: a kid named Jamie is sad because there's no snow in his town. That's the plot, now bring on the leapers, contortionists, flyers, balancers and other assorted arty athletic types.
And they do come on in a flurry. Patricial Ruel's town square set is soon loaded with skateboarders, bicyclists, an odd assortment of green-clad robbers who look like Irish variations of the MacDonald's Hamburgler and a slack-roped clothes line made for walking. Last year's huge, lumbering shaggy dog puppets have been reimagined as an acrobatic team in human-sized costumes, but one of them still can't resist relieving himself on one of the singing streetlamps, causing a short circuit that necessitates a visit from an electrician who happens to be an expert at balancing on a towering assortment of cylinder pipes.
Returning favorites include a mistress of muscle isolation twirling assorted hoops in varying directions on every available body part, aerial strap artists gracefully flying with balletic beauty and a troupe of acrobatic daredevils bouncing high in the sky off of long flexible poles. But the new featured highlight is a wild chase scene taking place on a stage-length trampoline hidden in the floor. Supposedly, the green guys are trying to escape the pursuit of a group of bicycle-riding cops, but that's just an excuse for an exhilarating sequence of flying leaps, comical bounces and a few lengthy jumps worthy of Evel Kenevel.
I suppose I'm not giving anything unexpected away by letting you know that, yes, it does snow at the finale; though it's not quite the blinding blizzard I recall from last year. I guess it's the economy, you know.
Photo courtesy of Cirque du Soleil
Posted on November 24, 2008 - by
About the Author: After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Citi Field pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.