REVIEW: Aiming for Sainthood (Victory Gardens)

 

The Good Girl

 

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Victory Gardens Fresh-Squeezed presents
  
Aiming for Sainthood
   
Written and performed by Arlene Malinowski
Directed by Will Rogers
Richard Christiansen Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through September 26  |  tickets: $20  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Arlene Malinowski’s comic one-act monologue, Aiming for Sainthood, is about being an adult child of deaf parents, right in the middle of her mother’s struggle against cancer. Or, is she more a childlike adult—for Arlene’s vacation trip to her parents’ home in New Jersey alters radically after the out-of-the-blue discovery that Mom has cancer. From that point on everything Arlene attempts as damage control throws her back into the childhood state she knew before leaving home. Onstage at Victory Gardens’s Richard Christiansen Theater for only six performances, Malinowski’s warm and witty tale about managing the unmanageable in the face of mortality is sure to delight audiences familiar with the separate cultures and experiences created by deafness or other lifelong disabilities.

Aiming for Sainthood's Arlene Malinowski - with horns!Malinowski’s storytelling performance is funny and outgoing. Will Rogers direction keeps the pace moving around Nick Seiben’s sensible and subtly intriguing set. “I’m all about getting it done,” says Arlene, taking responsibility for Mom’s care, little suspecting her family’s battle with cancer will be a long and draining one that demands immense personal sacrifice from her. Malinowski lightens that struggle with accounts of running into various characters at the hospital, recollections of her thoroughly Catholic childhood, and the recognizable facets of Jersey culture. There’s Butch, the uber-practical gay male nurse in salmon-colored scrubs and Ruby, one of the hospital’s “regulars” who keeps passing out free coupons to the cafeteria. Finally, there’s Arlene’s Dad, who has a very poetic deaf way of telling people they’re stupid, and her sister, Diana, who gets off easy by being the perpetual baby of the family.

Malinowski’s abilities to humorously relate her tale need no critical coaching from the sidelines—a fact pounded home to me by the audience’s delighted response to her script and well-timed performance. From my own chair, I found her handling of these themes a little on the lite side. Think Erma Bombeck meets The Savages meets Late Night Catechism—nice is the sentiment that overwhelms Aiming for Sainthood. If nice and lite is how you like humor about facing down mortality, shouldering the burdens of caretaking, crises of faith and dealing with less-than-responsible siblings, this is your show. All those looking for darker, weightier humor will need to go elsewhere.

I, for one, was almost palpably relieved once Malinowski started acknowledging her propensity for self-neglect in her self-martyrdom. “My head throbs and I smell like a food court,” she says, once Mom’s stay in the hospital has been extended and extended. Taking on all the responsibility has reduced her to junk food, sweatpants and day time television. “I’ll take Perfect Daughters for a thousand, Alex,” she cracks, still thinking her return home to her husband in Los Angeles is imminent.

Malinowski’s humor exists to keep the darkness at bay. Since Arlene is capable of having her own miraculous revelations and since Mom ultimately survives cancer, why not? I left the theater feeling this play’s lightness, but not much depth. However, looking into the contented and moved faces of audience members as they were leaving, I realized that there are disparate ways to deal with resentment and pain. Whatever works.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The production runs September 20-26, 2010, in the in the Richard Christiansen Theater at Victory Gardens, 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago.  Recommended for ages 12 and up.

 

 

 

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REVIEW: A Guide For The Perplexed (Victory Gardens)

Brilliant acting heightens uneven script

 

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Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
A Guide for the Perplexed
       
By Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by
Sandy Shinner
Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
Through August 15  |
Tickets: $20–50  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Chicago sees a lot of very good acting. Yet every once in a while an actor really socks you in the eyes with the difference between good and great. That’s Kevin Anderson in a Joel Drake Johnson’s quirky dark comedy, A Guide for the Perplexed, now in world premiere at Victory Gardens.

Weiler and Anderson, V Every movement, every line of Anderson’s body adds meaning to his brilliantly nuanced performance. Together with Francis Guinan, another highly talented Steppenwolf ensemble member, he makes such mundane acts as making a bed or feeding fish hilarious.

Anderson plays Doug, a 50-something loser who’s just left a five-year prison stretch. Exhausted mentally and physically, with nowhere else to go, he’s reluctantly staying in the den at his sister Sheila’s house on the North Shore — much to the dismay of her nerdy, stressed-out husband, Phillip (Guinan).

Already coping with his own crises, including his collapsing marriage and a deteriorating relationship with his teenage son, the neurotic Phillip’s ill-equipped to deal with his passive-aggressive brother-in-law’s uneasy return to freedom. Sheila, played by Meg Thalken in a series of brief phone calls, is away on business. Phillip, out of work and demoralized as the result of a criminal accusation that may or may not be accurate, spends his time gardening, cooking, reading romance novels and quarreling with his bright, but troubled, gay son Andrew (Bubba Weiler).

Andrew vents to his uncle, who makes caring, though clumsy efforts to help. In a sensitive performance, Bubba Weiler exudes a sometimes over-the-top teen angst.

The title of this dysfunctional-family story is taken from the esoteric text by medieval Jewish philospher Moses Maimonides aka Rambam. Andrew, a Hebrew scholar, tells his uncle that Maimonides offers a rational guide to the "problems of living." But when Doug presses for examples of what the great thinker had to say about their own specific troubles, Andrew cannot answer.

 

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The final, bizarre addition to the cast of characters is Betty, a prosperous woman from Cincinnati, one of Doug’s many prison pen pals. To his consternation, she’s driven all night, arriving at 6 a.m., to shower him with gifts and confess that she’s fallen in love with him through their mail correspondence. Cynthia Baker’s Southern-belle portrayal seems overly cheery and restrained, not nearly lovesick enough.

The action rotates indoors and out on a neat revolving set by Jeffrey Bauer that nicely evokes upper-middle-class suburbia, but its measured revolutions unnecessarily slow the pace. Meanwhile, Johnson’s script spins dizzyingly back and forth between absurd humor and bleak emotional outbursts.

Often, it works, such as in a highly evocative monologue in the second act where Guinan brilliantly describes the pleasures of grocery shopping as relief from depression. But such comic delicacy clashes with the heavy melancholia of the serious moments, and the abrupt, unsettled conclusion leaves viewers without catharsis.

In the hands of less-skilled actors, this play might not be worthwhile. This cast, however, puts A Guide for the Perplexed on the recommended list.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Note: Suitable for ages 14 and up.

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REVIEW: Hard Headed Heart (Blair Thomas and Co.)

Sad puppet love, high art

  
   

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Blair Thomas & Co. presents
    
Hard Headed Heart
   
Created by Blair Thomas
Victory Gardens, Richard Christiansen Theater
2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago (map)
Through Aug. 21  | 
Tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

We long ago learned that puppets aren’t just for kids. In founding Redmoon Theater 20 years ago, puppeteer Blair Thomas taught Chicago that lesson with giant puppets, keen artistry and contemporary work. Now, in his intimate, one-man show Hard Headed Heart, currently at Victory Gardens’ Richard Christiansen Theater, Thomas deftly schools us in historic puppetry arts while focusing on darkly romantic adult themes.

blair_thomas_credit Saverio Truglia Don’t look for Redmoonlike spectacle, Disneyesque whimsy or Muppety cute — instead, in three lyrical, loosely connected vignettes, Thomas showcases a variety of smaller format, centuries-old puppetry forms: wooden-headed hand puppets; jointed, rod marionettes; scrolling cantastoria; shadow puppets and rod puppets — all with an edge of grotesquerie. In a break with some of the traditions, Thomas, clad in a dusty black suit like a 19th-century undertaker, remains fully visible throughout, sometimes as puppeteer, sometimes as a live actor, creating an amalgam between puppetry and performance art. We’re always aware of the man — Thomas never effaces himself into a hidden operator behind the scenes.

Each of the three segments of the 75-minute show, first produced last year, has its own creative puppet set. Hard Headed Heart begins with Thomas’s lively, amusing rendition of "The Puppet Show of Don Cristobal" by Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca, a lightly bawdy hand-puppet show about the courtship of the folkloric Spanish scalawag and bully Cristobal and his dubious lady love, Rosita.

At its outset, we’re treated to Thomas, in sad-faced clown makeup, playing the pompous director and the fanciful poet-author, whipping around a rotating costume as he converses with himself. Next comes a Punch and Judy-like act, with classically stylized puppets and a traditionally violent and silly love story. Thomas switches between manipulating the hand puppets, playing several musical instruments and performing in his director role in a frenetic, almost breathless one-man-band performance.

For the second act, Thomas riffs on the traditional New Orleans jazz funeral standard "St. James Infirmary." In this slow-moving piece, Thomas alternates between singing (with a vocal wail reminiscent of Cab Calloway in the 1933 Betty Boop cartoon "Snow-White"), operating rod marionettes in front of a motorized paper-scroll backdrop and playing ukelele, toy piano, drums, cymbals and what looks like a mellophone or BlairThomas-St James Infirmary_1_credit Kipling Swehla baritone bugle. With the mournful-visaged marionettes, designed by Jesse Mooney-Bullock to evoke antique specimens, Thomas re-enacts the funereal love affair of the song to chillingly dramatic effect, with some particularly effective puppet dance moves that I’m sure are much harder to achieve than he makes them look.

Finally, Thomas presents Wallace Stevens’ poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" in a shadow puppet show performed against a set of four backlit, rolling arts scrolls. To the music of Ben Johnston‘s String Quartet #4, Thomas dances below his moving paper images, cranking the rolls and using cut-outs, rod puppets and his hands to convey Stevens’ cryptic poetry.

This won’t be a show for everyone — those impatient with poetry or unsympathetic to largely plotless mood pieces about love gone wrong may not feel that its artistry overcomes those elements. Hard Headed Heart is for those who enjoy sad songs and art for art’s sake.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Note: Hard Headed Heart is suitable for ages 16 and up. Produced without an intermission, the show has open seating.

   
  

Part of Thomas’s performance of "St. James Infirmary" at the 2010 "Cranks and Banners" Festival.

  
  

Cab Calloway sings "St. James Infirmary" in Betty Boop’s "Snow-White."

   
   

REVIEW: Jacob and Jack (Victory Gardens)

Fun and witty, with a shmeer of the absurd

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Victory Gardens presents
 
Jacob and Jack
 
Written by James Sherman
Directed by
Dennis Zacek
at
Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
thru June 20th  |  tickets: $20-$48   |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh 

Jacob-and-Jack06‘You must be a good actor. You’re not good-looking enough to make it in L.A. unless you were a good actor.’ Victory Gardens presents the world premiere of Jacob and Jack.  A successful commercial actor returns to Chicago for a Yiddish theatre tribute to his grandfather. Thinking it’s only a staged reading for his mother’s ladies club, Jack has not rehearsed. Complications arise as he pisses off his wife, flirts with the  ingénue and the theatre sells out.  In a parallel dimension set in 1935, Jacob is preparing for his theatrical moment.  Complications arise as he pisses off his wife, flirts with the ingénue and the theatre does not sell out. Seventy-five years apart, Jacob and Jack are challenged with a stage actor’s pay, ego and libido. Jacob and Jack is a comedy transcending time. The humor is beautifully showcased in the similarities and differences between past and present theatre. It’s witty with a shmeer of the absurd.

The stage at Victory Gardens has been transformed into three connecting dressing rooms. Mary Griswold (Scenic Designer) has created a backstage peek at the actors’ preparation quarters. They are sparse and dingy and sadly imaginable as exactly the same in 1935 or 2010. Griswold also gives flashes of theatre excitement with partial views of the recognizable marquees for Chicago, Palace and Merle Reskin hovering over the non-glamorous backstage onstage. There are five doors that are used to transition the scene from past to present. Since three of the actors change character but not costume, the doors help the conversion. Director Dennis Zacek uses the opening and shutting doors to add a slapstick element to the amusing chaos.

Photo by Liz Lauren Photo by Liz Lauren
Jacob-and-Jack01   Photo by Liz Lauren

Zacek assembled six phenomenal actors to play twelve different parts. The actor’s duality is recognized in physical and vocal distinctions. In the title role, Craig Spidle (Jack/Jacob) plays up the schmuck as Jack and chutzpah as Jacob. ‘I work in television so I don’t have to rehearse,’ versus ‘I am upstage and you are down, down downstage.’ Either role, he is hilarious, whether cowering under the table or beating his breast in arrogance. His wife in both worlds, Janet Ulrich Brooks (Lisa/Leah) reacts to the philandering with sarcastic jabs of vulnerable disgust as Lisa and solid resignation as Leah. Her funniest moments are perfectly timed bursts of surprising reaction. Laura Scheinbaum (Robin/Rachel) is delightful as both the contemporary confident MFA actor and the anxious deli discovery destined for the stage. Roslyn Alexander (Esther/Hannah) charms as the no-nonsense mother of Jack and the suspicious, protective mother of Rachel. When she breaks out into song, she is everybody’s bubeleh. With the broadest ranges between Jewish immigrant and American stereotype, Daniel Cantor (Ted/Abe) and Andrew Keltz (Don/Moishe) deliver rich versions of both their roles.

Oy, a mecheieh, chochemas! Playwright James Sherman and Director Dennis Zacek have devised a comedic shtick with hilarious results. Sherman has delivered a farce honoring not only the Yiddish theatre but also highlighting the struggles of contemporary theatre. It’s a wonderful reminder that an actor struggles to deliver his ‘gift to you!’ Mazel tov! May you enjoy success from your kishkes! Ahf mir gezogt!

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  

Photo by Liz Lauren

 

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REVIEW: The Last Cargo Cult (Victory Gardens)

Witty, expressive storyteller goes tribal

 

 
Victory Gardens Freshly Squeezed Series presents
 
The Last Cargo Cult
 
Written and performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by
Jean Michele Gregory
at the
Richard Christiansen Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
thru May 9th  | tickets: $25  |  more info

By Katy Walsh

Sleeping with a pig, shopping at Ikea, fermented yam paste, $40 public beaches, its primitive tales from the South Pacific spliced up with pure Americana. Victory Gardens Freshly Squeezed Series presents

The Last Cargo Cult runs for a limited engagement at the Richard Christiansen Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln. Master storyteller Mike Daisey uses his personal memoirs to illustrate America’s money paradox. According to Wikipedia, the goddess of all information, “a cargo cult is a type of religious practice that may appear in traditional  tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced cultures.” During World War II, the U.S. military set up strategic bases on several South cargocult3Pacific islands. At the conclusion of the war, the G.I. Joes go but the awakening to technology and commerce remains. (Think of Bali Ha’i islanders singing, "I’m gonna wash that man right outta my hair.”) Daisey relates his recent journey to an exotic South Pacific Island that worships America. He intertwines everyday experiences of a first world inhabitant. The Last Cargo Cult is a one-man comedic deconstruction of the U.S. economic foundation that crumbled.

Daisey is a witty and expressive storyteller. As the writer, his word choices create vivid illustrations. He describes the islanders as “if the French and English had sex and the baby was raised by sailors in the 1940’s.” Now, that’s a descriptor. He cloaks poignant points within hilarious absurdity. Upon arrival each audience member receives a bill of currency, ranging from $1 to $100. Daisey uses the random distribution to relate self-validation connected to money. With arms flailing, eyes bulging and red faced, Daisey is outstanding in nailing the ludicrous lives of Americans and their plethora of ‘awesome shit.’ He transitions to the unexpected response in the story with a well-placed uttering of the word ‘awkward.’ Daisey’s disenchantment with the American cargocult financial industry and the unfortunate infiltration of American culture on what use to be an exotic island is pure schadenfreude. He finds the comedy in the farce and delivers it with dark, delicious satisfaction.

The running time is two hours and ten minutes. Awkward… It’s too long! It’s like if Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert had a love child and that love child was paid by the word commentating on the travel channel. Even the strongest storyteller benefits from editing. If the length is part of the money paradox theme, I got my money’s worth easily at the half-way point. Seat F 109 didn’t even make it that far before she started dozing off and she received $50 to my $1 in the commerce audience activity. Every time Daisey turned over a legal sheet of notes, I silently prayed, “be the bottom of the pile.” Although I have a healthy attention span, I have American impatience limitations. I refused to go on a second date with a monologuer. And after the hour and a half, he at least bought my dinner. Mike, tack on another forty minutes of my undivided attention and I’m going to expect more than dinner out of our encounter.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

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Running Time: Two hours and ten minutes

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REVIEW: Mike Daisey – How Theater Failed America

A talented voice for the theater-cynic in all of us

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Victory Gardens Theatre presents
 
How Theater Failed America
 
Written and performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by
Jean-Michele Gregory
At
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
Through May 2nd  |  Tickets: $25  |   more info

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

“You should not have come here,” begins Mike Daisey in his one-man tour de force of nature, How Theater Failed America.  For one thing, he continues, the title of the show sucks – ( “What is this, a fucking film strip?”)  For another, Daisey’s simultaneously bleak and brilliant autobiographical walk down the memory lane of his career will outrage the politically correct. It will also send those who view theater as a sacred, noble art spiraling and screaming down a wild rabbit hole of profane realty.  (Spoiler alert: Those who want to cling to the myth of  “community”  in theater should stay home and stick to their Twitter confabs.)  It’s fair to ask why anyone other than out-of-work actors (which is to say – more or less – actors) should give a whit about the death of theater or about Daisey’s scathing monologue.  Will the grid go dark if all of the world’s liberal arts grads collectively decide never to mount another revival of A View from the Bridge? Does the world’s well-being rest on an endless cycle of revisionist Ibsen? Of course not.  Yet this is where Daisey’s explosive and formidable talent becomes so gloriously apparent. Directed by Jean-Michele GregoryHow Theater Failed America will be powerfully entertaining even to those who could not care less about whether Becket and Brecht vanish from the face of the earth, washed away by the likes of “The Little Mermaid”.  As for those with a vested interest in the arts, they will find themselves repeatedly shocked and undeniably entertained by the galvanizing candor of Daisey’s observations.  The man articulates truths that just aren’t spoken aloud and in doing so, breaks what often feels like a conspiracy of silence among artists.  (Question the existence of “community” in local theatrical circles, and you’ll all but be accused of heresy.)

Weaving deeply personal stories into the context of the arts in the 21st century, Daisey  hits the audience with a barrage of blazing immediacy and devastating honesty. While it’s autobiographical,  Gregory’s direction excises the piece of all self-indulgence and paces it so well the two-hour run time feels like 15 minutes, This is a story about MIke Daisey’s life in the theater, but it is also a story about life in general in all its dazzling, manic absurdity and free-falling despair. How Theater Failed America is about how doing an ill-advised version of Jean Genet’s The Balcony with an albino, a dwarf, a mud pit and a perpetually drunk director can prove to be one’s redemption.  And if one achieves that redemption by being forced to masturbate before an audience that includes little children? Then surely there is hope for even the most depressed, hopeless and rudderless among us.

Long before Daisey segues into the suicidal segment of his career (his crystalline description of doing the Dead Man’s float night after night on an icy Maine lake is almost unbearably vivid), he offers a brief lesson in How Theater Works.  Anyone who has perused any given season at  the Goodman already knows about the “ freeze-dried” actors imported from New York on a regular basis. What perhaps isn’t so obvious:  That artistic directors are actually more like factory foremen, that board members are forever trying to run the machinery and that plays aren’t really plays so much as “slots” (as in the winter slot, the spring slot, the minority slot).

Daisey has no illusions about what  prompts the inclusion of his show in a season: that conversation never starts with an artistic director saying something like “I love your work and want to bring you to my stage.” It instead usually starts with a managing director saying something like “You probably heard we had to cancel our ‘Pericles.’ "  Theaters turn to him because he offers a show with no set demands and the smallest possible cast size.  Were it possible to stage a show with a cast of less than one, he’d be out of work, Daisey admits.

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His experience teaching is similarly forthright  and sentiment-free – which makes its emotional wallop all the more powerful . In a segment that could draw tears from a stone, Daisey recalls a season wherein he shaped a bunch of thuggish juvenile delinquents into an award-winning one-act company.  If you think this chapter merits a “Stand and Deliver” moment, expect to have your rosy romantic expectations dashed under a cold stone of reality.  After the win, Daisey describes his cold, bone-certain knowledge that his teenage star – a deeply troubled boy for whom theater became a lifeline and who dreamed of going to college and majoring in acting – was a loser whose aspirations would never become actualities.  There’s triumph of the human spirit, and then there’s the harsh, bitter reality that some people cannot escape the dead-ends of their own, sad, uncontrollable circumstances. 

Daisey’s youthful attempts at creating his own theater company in western Maine are similarly un-romantic and, often, riotously funny in the telling.  His story of living on rationed Raman noodles and putting on shows held together (literally, in the case of the light board) with duct tape is a misadventure that every 20something, self-appointed artistic director of an Off-Loop start-up would do well to heed.  That you can’t eat idealism (or even fashion an adequate sound design from it)  is the least of the perils faced by young, starry-eyed artists certain that their revival of Suburbia can change if not the world, than  at the very least, their community.

Yet for all Daisey’s clear-eyed vision , How Theater Failed America is hardly a cynical show.  That the actor survived masturbating to Genet is an ironclad testament to the fact that talent, in the end, can trump even the  most daunting of obstacles. Yes, audiences are getting smaller, older and disturbing the actors with their wheezing oxygen tanks. Daisey’s touring nonetheless. And with a cracking fine show. If he has succeeded among theater’s many failures, there’s hope for the arts yet .

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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Mike Daisey presents a second monologue, The Last Cargo Cult, May 5 – 9 at the Victory Gardens. Tickets are $25. For more information, go to www.victorygardens.org

REVIEW: How Theater Failed America (Victory Gardens)

A talented monologist tells it like it is

 

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Victory Gardens presents
 
How Theater Failed America
 
Written and Performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by
Jean-Michele Gregory
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 2nd  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Ian Epstein 

The stage is set like a Spaulding Gray performance – and that’s probably not an accident: empty save for a long, rectangular wooden desk in the center set with a glass of water and a few precisely stacked, torn out pages of ruled and written on yellow note paper. There are random collections of bric-a-brac piled high in the back, dimly lit like a proscenium made of old trunks and other junk, receded so far that it’s become a frame, a wall hanging. A stray lamp with no shade lingers brightly on one daisey_spadeaspadeside of the stage, and a single, lonely chair waits behind the desk. Enter, Mike Daisey, to applause. He takes his seat opposite the audience and sets off on a two hour explanation about How Theater Failed America.

The first thing Mike Daisey takes on in his rocket-fueled, sit-down invective monologue How Theater Failed America is the title of his own show. It’s a flimsy passive construction, he complains, as he slams his fist against the desk for emphasis and clarity. A small cloud of dust shoots out, dissipating in the light. Ridiculing himself even more, he shreds his own logic to set off on the right comedic foot and lighten the mood – perhaps people will stop thinking about the weight or potential boredom threatened by the show’s title.  He continues, asking – does the title suggest that there will be a powerpoint presentation? Is that what the ‘How’ is for? Is he trying to consciously drive people away with the show?

Once he’s done making fun of himself, he begins to bait the audience with guesses about their suspect motivations and beliefs about this angrily titled show. He laughs at the audience’s thirst to see someone or something crucified; then he recounts a conversation with an artistic director friend who told him that the show was great but the name was shit.

The monologue from the waist up told from behind a desk beneath stage lights without design flourishes or technical frills is stand-up comedy’s tragic relative – the uncle who embarrasses at a family function. The fun in stand-up comedy comes from watching a comedian wander from topic-to-topic, chasing laughs like a poacher on safari – hunting for that elusive combination of the hysterical and the everyday.  Conversely, the fun in watching Mike Daisey’s monologue comes from watching Daisey attempt to take on the institutions and corporations, the characters and personalities, the theories and practices of the American theater business like a surgeon turning a dull scalpel on his own body to cure actors and audience members suffering from a certain commercial or regional non-profit malaise.

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From behind his desk, Daisey delivers an exhaustingly good performance. Each word seems paired with an energetic gesture and the gesture accompanies each reuse of that word. It makes it very hard not to pay close attention to the only man glowing beneath the lights on stage, screeching every third minute. The audience begins to hear the story unfold in Daisey’s own desktop language of emphatic eyes, thirsty sips, brow-sweat wipes, and swinging limbs. The effect is hypnotic.

And then, of course, there is the monologue he delivers extemporaneously, occasionally glancing at notes, pulling anecdotes from experience, repeating angry assertions with comfort and ease. Daisey traverses a series of lyric meditations on his own past, memoir-like vignettes, describing bouts of paralytic depression or flirting with suicide in the icy October waves of a lake in Maine. He reminisces about starting a summer repertory company in Maine’s Western woods with a friend and his three ex-girlfriends. He tells the story of a stint as high school teacher where he stuck  76 high school kids on a stage in order to win a state daisey_proofcompetition. Woven throughout these memoir-like vignettes – the real gems of this show – Daisey tosses in snippets of conversation with a literary manager over here, a producer over there and a running series of interactions with a convivial drinking buddy and artistic director.

Daisey’s considerable accomplishment as an actor and a lucid storyteller aside, the show’s titular content is where it’s at its weakest. He paints a colorful but indistinct portrait of the American Theater as an aging, dying art form. It’s not that he doesn’t paint it well – he absolutely does. He talks chillingly of aging subscriber bases and listening to the hiss of oxygen tanks from the darkness beyond the stage; he expresses his deep fear that he is surfing through life on the last crest of American theater’s relevance, even going so far as to say that after him, "they’ll turn off the lights." He even includes a great bit about freeze-dried boxes of actors being dropped off from New York or “Law & Order” to work with a director who scrawled a drunk concept blueprint on a SoHo cocktail napkin before boarding a private jet to join the thawing actors for three weeks; that this is usually done with some specious connection to ‘community’ and how it would be entirely ludicrous if, say, professional sports worked like this.

The tone, when Daisey is railing against the American Theater establishment, is melodramatic and alarmist.  And it’s just this cynical topic that makes the show so engaging to experience. He is really mad; strong emotions are key to any sense of drama.  And a talented monologist trying to tackle these tough questions is a welcome change from what Daisey describes as all that "academic mist" about the dwindling audiences and commercialization and corporatism and the "end of theater". Unfortunately, How Theater Failed America‘s biggest hole is its almost total omission of alternatives.  If American Theater is so tied up in real estate or ailing or too corporate or failing, then what can be done to start bailing it out?  

 
 
Rating: ★★★
 
 

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