Jun 23, 2012

A Non-Review of the New Daisey

I'm here in Boston for the TCG conference, and last night Mike Daisey offered a two-hour presentation of his newest monologue, The Orient Express (Or, the Value of Failure), which he'd previously presented at Spoleto. I'm not in a position to review it since, a) It's a work-in-progress and it shouldn't be reviewed, and b) I only caught, say, the last 75-80 minutes of it, running as I was from TCG staff duties elsewhere. I do have some comments and impressions to share about it, though, and frankly, just some lovely quotes I'd love to share with the world that may not survive in future drafts of the work. I'll break them down into bullet points to keep this post under control (not least because I have more TCG staff duties to attend to in less than an hour).
  • This was the perfect crowd for the piece, which interweaves a trip Mike and his wife/director, Jean-Michele Gregory, took on the Orient Express through Europe with a kind of consideration/self-flagellation over l'affaire Ira and the attending controversy. The TCG attendees are by and large people who followed that kerfuffle with great attention, so Daisey didn't have to explain what he was talking about when he referred to Chinese labor, the "retraction episode," etc. This was, by at least one account, not the case in Spoleto.
  • Given that backstory, I'm unsure whether this new piece will stand on its own as its own monologue or function as a kind of epilogue to The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, which itself has already changed (and will almost certainly be re-reviewed when it returns to Woolly Mammoth next month). As the latter, it was quite an effective evening of theater (is that too review-y?).
  • Daisey is in no danger of not having a long and auspicious career in the American theater, if he wants it. He is still a spellbinding storyteller and theatrical magician. Whether he'll ever have, or deserve, a larger platform for his art or his activism is an open question.
  • The new piece's touchstones include Karl May, a popular German fabulist of the 19th century, whose tales of the American West were eventually debunked; and Upton Sinclair, whose muckraking novel The Jungle helped lead to the creation of the FDA. Daisey points out, correctly, that Sinclair was called a liar for many of the distortions and exaggerations in The Jungle but that those questions were eventually drowned out by the urgency of addressing the real abuses the book helped bring to light. The jury is still out on whether something similar might have happened with Daisey—as he points out, the American Life retraction episode, which attracted orders of magnitude more attention than his original Agony broadcast, effectively separated him and his lies from the truth about Foxconn's abuses, and who's to say that the latter is not the lede that will stick in people's minds? But there's a reason Sinclair wrote his exposé as a novel, not reportage. It's an important distinction.
  • "Vienna is the Helen Mirren of cities. It looks fabulous despite its age."
  • "I'm obsessed with death—that's why I work in the theater."
  • "Theater is not an illusion. That's its great secret. Theater is the house of the real."
  • There was also a lovely metaphor about the experience of theater being the music of the space between the audience and the performer, the strings of that being plucked, something like that—I can't reconstruct it, which was kind of the point of it, anyway.
No piece will entirely satisfy Daisey's critics, of course; I spoke to one documentary theater artist afterwards who's still pretty pissed at him for his "cheesy" theatrical embellishments, even in last night's piece. Why does the whole story have to be about him? this artist wondered; real people and their stories should be compelling enough for theater, if it's done right. Daisey will be on the closing panel this afternoon with a number of documentary-ish theater artists, and I'm sure we'll hear more on this theme. I look forward to the colloquy, and I desperately hope it's not a Panel All About Mike and Ira, but I also can say I look forward to Daisey's next piece, and the next, and so on. He fucked up, no question, but he's still got life left in him as an artist.

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