Los Angeles Theater Review: MIKE DAISEY: AMERICAN UTOPIAS (Royce Hall at UCLA)

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by Tony Frankel on February 11, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


I’m jealous of Mike Daisey. In American Utopias at Royce Hall, the infamous monologist fulminated and commentated about three interpolated subjects near and dear to my heart: Disney, Activism, and Community Gatherings. The corpulent and energetic Daisey, who sat at a table mopping himself, was by-and-large riveting and sometimes uproarious as he regaled us with stories about his experiences with Disney World, Occupy Wall Street, and Burning Man. The theme here is community and, to some extent, the lengths that Americans go through to achieve a sense of belonging. As with any great storyteller, he is a genius at mixing a true-life yarn with hyperbole and creative wordplay, all wrapped up in a comedian’s semi-insightful “Do you notice how we (fill in the blank) when we (fill in the blank)?” I’m Mike Daisey, American Utopias at Royce Hall Feb 6, 2014envious because he is making a living in the theater by being a critic of his own experiences without really telling the truth.

Along with David Sedaris and Garrison Keillor, Daisey is one of America’s current great talkers. As with Spalding Gray (Swimming to Cambodia)—the memoirist who also sat at a wooden table with water at the ready while performing on a bare stage—Daisey is both a prodigious noticer and robust with self-deprecatory humor. He’s neither sophisticated like Oscar Levant nor folksy like Mark Twain, but his ironical musings can be just as funny. And while he certainly prides himself on his New York edginess, he is far more accessible and humane than the wittier Fran Lebowitz.

large_1As with his other monologues, such as How Theater Failed America, Daisey is a master at capping his observations: His summation of the Magic Kingdom as a perfect dreamscape of corporate reality is beautifully summed up as “Leni Riefenstahl would love Disney World.” Equally adept at conjuring images, his invented dialogue of an unseen woman “taking it up the ass” and her grumbling partner at Burning Man created a picture I won’t soon be getting out of my head. And it’s magic when his imagery and capping come together in one glorious disclosure: After describing in length his fanatical family members at a Character Breakfast in the Park, he closes with the admission that none of the 13 attendees were children.

Mike Daisey, American Utopias at Royce Hall Feb 6, 2014.And yet while certainly diverting, the very long monologue (2 and a half hours without intermission) fails to achieve the nirvana the material promises. He can be just as crass as Richard Pryor, but without the same gift of mimicry; Daisey’s F-bombs feel superfluous, turning what could have been modern but timeless folktales into dispensable fucktales. As directed by dramaturg Jean-Michele Gregory, segues don’t blend well in his back-and-forth storytelling, and the energy drops in the theater like a deflated balloon (it was during these segues that no less than five patrons around me departed). And the ending, in which we follow him outside for a wrap-up of New Age truisms in the quad, didn’t achieve the intended apotheosis as he circumnavigates profundity by asking us to notice that we choose the utopia we live in.

For all of its insights, revelations, and humor, American Utopias sometimes feels as wearying as a stand-up act. Naturally, good storytellers often employ ornamentation or revise content to maximize their desired effect; but there’s a believability issue here that gnaws away at the effectiveness of the show. This occasionally happened with Spalding Gray, who wrote in his journal that his first wife Renée said he was confessional but not honest.

Mike Daisey, American UtopiasOne of the issues here is that the recently bearded Daisey seems determined to be a rabble-rouser, but his bent is transparent; like Michael Moore, he doesn’t always report back from the battlefield of humanity with accuracy. For those who don’t know, a section of the raconteur’s acclaimed one-man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs—in which he relates his visits to a China factory that makes Apple products—appeared on Ira Glass’s This American Life on NPR. It turned out that “Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory” contained, per Glass, “significant and numerous fabrications.” In fact, so many errors that the show was retracted, and an entirely new program was created detailing them. (All this while Daisey was performing Steve Jobs at the Public in New York.) “I’m not going to say that I didn’t take a few shortcuts in my passion to be heard,” Daisey would tell Glass. “My mistake, the mistake I truly regret, is that I had it on your show as journalism, and it’s not journalism. It’s theater.” (See Daisey’s apology on his blogspot here.)

disneyland plaque from Mike Daisey's blogspotMany of the best American folktales are fictional accounts grounded in reality, such as Johnny Appleseed, but Daisey has an implicit relationship with the audience where we are meant to believe that his tales are non-fiction. It may be true that “shortcuts” make for better theater, and many writers have amalgamated several events into one to make a point, but it strikes me as disingenuous when the man who confides that he found the detailing throughout Disney World a marvel to behold relates his story with erroneous details. For example, he tells us of waking up in New Jersey at 2:30 am and arriving after flight and bus ride to the front gates of the Magic Kingdom at 7:00 am, which is a physical impossibility. Ultimately, inaccuracies such as calling the Animal Kingdom “Animal Planet” are trivialities; but the man who works overtime to help me create mental images via his astute observations and enquiries ends up jerking me out of the story with clear falsehoods.

It’s the first-person reporting that works best: Descriptions of advertising for Disney World splattered around the Magic Bus on the way to the Happiest Place on Earth is both funny and eerie; and the Burning Man incident where two squeaky-clean teenagers happen upon his site needing directions to the Orgy House is sweet and surprising. But this beautifully constructed writing about contrasts between the light MIKE DAISY - American Utopias at Wooly Mammoth POSTERand the dark loses steam in the Occupy Movement segments, largely because Daisey wasn’t actually at Zuccotti Park, the location of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests. Somehow, he segues into a segment in which he puts down Mayor Bloomberg on Bloomberg Radio, but this type of first-person reporting feels self-serving.

Mike Daisey is a necessary institution, but it’s strange that he highlights the juxtaposition between Corporate America and our happiness, but he has yet to smooth out the juxtaposition between theater and journalism. At a 2011 Occupy Broadway rally, Daisy said, “That’s the job of people in the theater – to hold space. And that’s the trick – you don’t hold it, you give it back to the audience.” Things get even trickier when the only way to give back is by lying to tell the truth.

production photos courtesy of CAP UCLA

Mike Daisey: American Utopias
Royce Hall at UCLA
played on February 6, 2014
for future events, call 310.825.2101 or visit www.cap.ucla.edu

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