Los Angeles Theater Review: HIT THE WALL (Davidson/Valenti Theatre in Hollywood)

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by Jason Rohrer on November 2, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles


Ike Holter’s play Hit the Wall, a historical “remix” about June 27 and 28, 1969 in New York City, went up first at the Steppenwolf in Chicago in 2012. The next year it went to New York, where it received mixed notices. A new production by LA’s LGBT Center has been extended through December, riding strong ticket sales and an overwhelmingly positive critical response. As a community-oriented show celebrating the ongoing gay rights struggle and the very topical issue of police brutality as a tool of minority oppression, this show has the trappings of crowd-pleasing, rabble-rousing populism. It is the kind of show about which one is almost obligated to say good things. I wish I could say them.

Dan Middleditch, Roland Ruiz.

Aside from the excellent, unfortunately hamstrung cast, the best thing about the current production is Ken Sawyer’s direction, which starts strong but quickly loses power. After a few minutes reviewers are not supposed to tell you about, the best in the show, playgoers are relegated to unpleasant seating arrangements around the rim of Desma Murphy’s Christopher Street-stoop set to watch the rest of the show in varying degrees of physical and emotional discomfort. The enjoyment one takes from the experience is in direct ratio to one’s ability to place the politics of goodwill above the need for dramatic coherence and overall attention to storytelling.

Jason Caceres, Blake Young-Fountain, Roland Ruiz

In Holter’s script, narratives and relationships are introduced – Judy Garland is dead; a gay couple and a lesbian couple hook up; a pair of queens insults passersby; a rookie gay boy arrives in Greenwich Village – and almost uniformly abandoned. No linear or emotional build ramps the play toward its central event, the famous confrontation between queers and police outside the Stonewall Inn that has come to be known as the Stonewall Riots, which are weakly represented by fight choreography and disconnected images of violence and aftermath. Stage manager Rebecca Schoenberg valiantly keeps the pieces in position, and Sawyer’s sound design and Matt Richter’s lights are the most effective conveyors of moment and scene. But while technical elements are important, they cannot themselves write or direct a show.

Roland Ruiz, Jason Caceres, Blake Young-Fountain, Adam Silver, Matthew Hancock, Shoniqua Shandai, Charlotte Gulezian

About 25 years after the events depicted here, I used to cadge drinks at the Stonewall (a bar that had resurrected the name at the original address). In my experience any given night of drug-, alcohol- and testosterone-induced hedonism on Christopher Street made a lot more sense than this show, and had a lot more to say about what it means to be queer, free, happy, sad…human. And as raucous and brutal as a Stonewall Friday night could be, it was never as loud as this production. Half the characters shout all the time, in scenes stultifyingly staged as speech contests. Cardboard characters demand the kind of presentational acting one gets from bad musicals, though Holter has not provided the usual compensation: songs.

Shoniqua Shandai, Matthew Hancock, Blake Young-Fountain

Thanks to Sawyer’s astute judgment, this production has a band playing original music by Anna Waronker and Charlotte Caffey, and the cast sings a song at the top and a song at the end. But the music is not very good, and for most of 100 minutes the band is silent, and often when it tries to play it is hushed to no comedic benefit by one of the characters. I wish the band had that power over the cast’s many top-of-the-voice monologues. These are talented and committed actors – Charlotte Gulezian, Matthew Hancock, Rolando Ruiz and Donnie Smith especially root into the gravitas of their roles, the best-written in the script; but through no fault of their own, in doing so they can sometimes stick out from the overall tone. Altogether I find it difficult to care about characters, like almost all of those in this play, who sound like pamphlets and history-book photo captions. Especially in such uncomfortable seats – even after a night at the Stonewall, nobody’s ass ever hurt this bad.

The company

photos by Ken Sawyer

Hit the Wall
Davidson/Valentini Theatre
The L.A. LGBT Center/The Village at Ed Gould Plaza
1125 N. McCadden Place in Hollywood
ends on October 25, 2015
EXTENDED to January 17, 2016
for tickets, call 323-860-7300 or visit LA Gay Center

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