I was just delighted when I found out that Dan Hoyle would be performing his latest one-man show, The Real Americans, at my local 142 Throckmorton Theatre, in Mill Valley. I love seeing stellar entertainment so close to home, and I love that cool little 1915 small-town theater. I’d seen Dan’s amazing Tings Dey Happen there a few years ago, and when I learned he was performing his new solo piece at the Marsh in San Francisco—where so many fine one-actor shows originate—I sat back and tried to be patient. I knew I could count on the Throckmorton.
If you haven’t seen The Real Americans (and even if you have), you’re in luck. Not only is Dan coming back to Mill Valley next Friday night (Feb. 15), he’s performing the piece at the Marsh Berkeley in March and early April.
You might call what Dan does theatrical reportage, though his work goes far beyond conveying facts and inhabiting human figures. For Tings Dey Happen (first performed in 2007), Hoyle spent 10 months in the Niger Delta, interviewing, observing, interacting with, and studying the mannerisms and dialects of a wide array of people involved in oil geopolitics: warlords, oil workers, mercenaries, businessmen, thieves, tribespeople, even the American ambassador to Niger. Then back at home, he developed (with actor and director Charlie Varon, who’s also great at this kind of solo performance) a complex, engrossing, and highly entertaining view of what he’d learned, interweaving scenes and stories, portraying each character with inspired mime and mimicry. Even more impressive, his characters often interact, as in Tings’ audacious fever dream of a conversation between Richard Pryor and Graham Greene.
For The Real Americans (also developed with and directed by Charlie Varon), Hoyle left our “urban PC bubble” and traveled for almost four months through the red-state heartland. There he met coal miners, mechanics, drug dealers, gun sellers, families, and fundamentalists, all of whom show him that life is never one-dimensional and rarely what you expect. Occasionally, he meets up with some friends back home at “yuppie brunch,” an opportunity to skewer our own mindless pretensions and beliefs. Hoyle is such a gentle, humane soul, even his most pointed vignettes are never cheap shots. And he’s such a fine actor that after a while, all you have to do is see his facial expression to know which character he’s portraying.
I won’t soon forget the arms seller he meets at a gun show, an antiwar veteran who works with suicidal fellow vets. Or the woman who tries to help him understand her reactionary husband by telling Hoyle about “redneck pride.” Or the closeted creationist who unexpectedly comes on to Dan in his truck; in that one moment, you glimpse the world of shame and shadows the man must live in.
The highlight of the play comes when Hoyle meets a lively young Dominican American in Ohio. The man, who remembers Hoyle from a gig in New York City, conveys both sides of an exchange with a Vietnam vet clearly suspicious of the dark-skinned stranger in his coffee shop. The younger man describes his own war experience, in Afghanistan. “So don’t talk to me like I’m not a fuckin’ American," he tells the man. “I’m America now.”
As are, Hoyle subtly reminds us, we all.
February 15, 142 Throckmorton Theatre, 142 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley, 415.383.9600; 142throckmortontheatre.com.
March 8-April 6, Fridays and Saturdays, The Marsh Berkeley, 2120 Allston Way, 415.282.3055; themarsh.org.