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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