Review | Matt Talbott’s ‘Reptile’ in Santa Barbara
S.B. Native’s One-Person Show Reckons with America
The poster for Reptile, Matt Talbott’s new one-person show, depicts the actor’s face in close-up with one half covered in realistic scales like some swamp thing. If it suggests that the performance will be a horror show, that’s at least partly true. Although Reptile is not, in fact, a live theater version of a monster movie, it does seek to reveal what’s monstrous beneath the facade of American history. Talbott, the son of a UCSB professor whose research included studies of 19th- and 20th-century war, knows a lot about American history and even more about what lurks behind the classroom buzzwords like “compromise” that seek to obscure its darker details. In a performance that lasts a little over an hour, Talbott weaves together his own experience with a sharply written and broad indictment of American history and the American present, scales and all.
While there’s never a doubt that Talbott has the goods on such damning episodes as slavery and climate change denial, his position in the lineup of perpetrators renders his monologue problematic in places. He’s up against one of the toughest rhetorical challenges of the jeremiad genre, which is the “cast the first stone” paradox. How does someone aware of their complicity in such social evils as white supremacy go about denouncing it? It’s similar to the dilemma faced by former slave traders who went on to become barnstorming abolitionists — how can you effectively revile the things you once did?
On the one hand, how can you not? But on the other, where do you begin? For Talbott, the origin of his personal redemption story lies in the contradictions he experienced as a kid growing up in Santa Barbara and then Princeton. His experiences as a public school student gave him an uncomfortable sense of widespread hypocrisy while he was engaging in bullying behavior. His account of the decimation of his gang of white friends by smaller yet tougher Latinx kids in an ill-conceived rumble in a drainage tunnel brings some of the night’s biggest laughs, but it also reveals what’s at the show’s troubled heart — a guilty conscience.
There’s no doubting Talbott’s facility with language and history. There’s minimal repetition for a show this ambitious, and the points he makes are vivid and clear. Yet as the topics change, Talbott’s tone and the show’s intensity stay the same. The villains of the piece are easy to identify, but is that all there is to the story? We get that Talbott was disappointed in his 3rd-grade teacher, but I’m less comfortable with his mocking version of her than he seems to be. Wherever this powerful show goes next, I hope it includes more of what it already offers, which is the squirming self-consciousness that comes with knowing that one is a little scaly.
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