Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Bring Out Your Dead

February 01, 2009

Ty Taylor and the Cast of Pippin
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2009

Two works that deal with the past in rather different ways are currently on offer by Los Angeles’ Center Theater Group. While both have their successes that could recommend them to some, neither is completely satisfying. The bigger of the two is a revival of Hirson and Schwartz’ Pippin at the Mark Taper Forum produced in conjunction with L.A.’s own Deaf West Theater. CTG and Deaf West by now have a long and fruitful history dating back nearly a decade to Big River and more recently with the kid-oriented Sleeping Beauty Wakes. Pippin does nothing to diminish the quality one might expect from this history in a show that cleverly combines both deaf and hearing performers and is delivered simultaneously in two languages. The show is big and bright with excellent production values, although the amplification was rather rocky in the performance I saw. The principals are mostly good, but the one standout is Ty Taylor as the Leading Player. Taylor is another performer minted out of TV’s reality show contest craze, having won that INXS lead singer competition thingy whenever that was. But such an inauspicious credit belies his talent and performance history. He’s magnetic and vocally strong generating the majority of moments where the production really comes alive. So with all this positive stuff, why isn’t the revival a huge artistic success? Mostly, it’s the dated and dull material. People may want escapism these days, but I’m not sure arriving in an adolescent’s memory of the 1970s is what they had in mind. The edgeless, and nearly plotless Pippin, is too well meaning and too unfocused to generate interest outside of a few of the musical numbers. Maybe I’m wrong, though. Hey, if Hair can stand a major revival, why not Pippin? Maybe this particular production just isn’t the one.

Danny Hoch works it out
Photo: Joan Marcus/CTG 2009
Meanwhile, across town at the Kirk Douglas Theater, CTG is presenting an artist dealing with the past of his own neighborhood. Danny Hoch’s Taking Over is a solo show detailing the ills of gentrification in the actor’s own Williamsburg district of Brooklyn through a series of character monologues. The piece has received a fair amount of attention for being unsettling to the middle-class, typically white, audiences it has played for around the country as well as in New York due to a confrontational stance towards those who might not view such developments as problematic. The funny thing is that Taking Over is actually quite timid throughout with rather sweet and funny vignettes and little outside of the very worn and beaten path of numerous other solo shows in recent years. A funny hat, a diffent coat, a well-practiced accent and boom - you've got a show. In fact, however, Taking Over only becomes confrontational when Mr. Hoch himself tells us that it is confrontational despite all evidence to the contrary in a penultimate scene where he steps out of character to read negative reactions to the work from former audience members and discuss his own feelings and experiences that informed the project to begin with. Apparently some people are uncomfortable by the thought that gentrification has a down side, but if this is a majority of his audience, Mr. Hoch appears to draw many a theatergoer who has never heard of Harold Pinter much less Sarah Kane. I suppose dressing this sheep in wolf’s clothing is clever marketing, but sadly it is not necessarily very compelling theater. There are a number of very good bits here that are funny and Hoch is adept at characterization, but this is not new stuff and its been done with more flair. (Even as recently as Nilaja Sun‘s No Child… in 2007 or Roger Guenvuer Smith’s The Watts Towers Project in 2006, both at the Kirk Douglas.) There are some clever ideas here, though, like the role that self-hatred plays in further oppressing the colonized that could perhaps be better served if realized in a more challenging setting. But, in the meantime, if you like this kind of solo show, I wouldn’t imagine you being disappointed with Taking Over, which runs through February 22nd.


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