Prodding the Masses: Mike Daisey at Woolly Mammoth

It’s hard to pin Mike Daisey down. You’d kind of like to know what he is – is he an actor, a monologist, a comedian, a one-man show, a writer, husband, radical, political and social critic? Is he a guy who sweats a lot on stage, a provocateur, a really interesting guy to interview or shoot the breeze with?

All true, but you’d still be missing a few things. He’s not lacking for fans—the New York Times has called him nothing less than “one of the finest solo performers of his generation.” But on the other hand, a Christian group walked out on one of his performances earlier in his career (though that may be taken as a compliment).

On his website, which he calls “His Secret Fortress on the Web,” he calls himself, “actor, author, commentator, playwright and general layabout.” I suspect most of that is true too, although you may have to talk to this wife to verify the latter.

And he’s back in town, back at the nearest thing to an ideal home he might have in Washington, the Woolly Mammoth Theater. And he brings with him his latest one-man production, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” a title that resonates on so many levels that it’s almost not funny. As always, the piece is about a Mike Daisey obsession. This is not so unusual; Daisey admits that he tends to obsess about things.

“I am, and always have been obsessed with Apple, everything about Apple, about Jobs, about the things we use every day, about iPad, and the iPhone. I grew up with everything we use today, like a natural progression,” he said.

Beware of what he says. I don’t mean to suggest that Daisey is not truthful, because he is painfully so. It’s just that most things he does, says, writes about and performs about on stage are so layered and crosswired as to defy any sort of coherent and sane description. The ability to connect and pull together, not always in a perfect fit, is a special gift of Daisey’s.

On stage—and I’ve only had the discomfiting pleasure once—he roils you up and carries you along with him like a runaway horse. He gets in your face and reconstructs your thinking a little. He makes you think, and it feels sometimes like he’s writing a novel right in front of you. At least that was my experience upon seeing “The Last Cargo Cult,” his last presentation at the Woolly.

On the phone, Daisey is pretty casual once you get going; he comes across as a very serious guy who can talk about big things in an off-handed way, as if just considering the implications of what he’s saying.

He is not, per se, an actor, although he was trained and educated in the academics of theater and performance. Nor is he a stand-up comic—he’s sitting down, sweating on stage—although almost casually he can be very funny

“The Agony and the Ecstasy” involves a portrait of Jobs, who with Bill Gates comprise the dynamic duo—opposites of sorts—who changed our whole way of living through technology. The two are to blame, can take the praise for and generally be damned and worshipped for all the little buzz-buzz things in our lives—the phone we carry, the computer we marry, the operating systems that run us, the apps we gotta have, all those things we plug into and flip open that are like breathing to us now.

And Daisey loved it—the Apple version—but then he embarked, as he often does with his projects, on a journey (this time to China) where he discovered that most of what Apple creates and manufactures comes at the cost of deplorable labor conditions. And it didn’t take long for him to see a terrible light, which became a monologue, which was workshopped, changed, troubled over and agonized over for over a year. And here we are now. I won’t say more because I haven’t seen it yet.

But here’s this up front. I Loved “Cargo Cult” as did a lot of people and critics in Washington. It was practically unanimous. It was a riff on a journey to the Pacific where he found islanders still worshipping and celebrating American “stuff,” crates of stuff left behind that symbolized the great American God of commerce. And from that he extrapolated a scathing explanation and description of America’s financial collapse from which we still reel. Not bad for a general layabout.

“I like to connect things,” he said. “It’s work, really hard work, exciting work. See, I don’t think we see how we live, what affects us, how things are connected. I want to challenge the public, the audience out there. I’m not out to really entertain, I’m not out to sweet-talk people. I don’t’ want to make people feel good. ”

On stage, Daisey is a hard charger and a water-drinker. He looks a little like the local actor Michael Willis, and others have compared him to Sam Kinniston, the blaringly loud stand-up comedian and social critic who died young. “I’m a big fan of his,” he said. “But no, that’s not me. I understand the anger though.”

A list of titles might give you a glimpse of where he’s coming from: “21 Dog Years,” his jump into notoriety and fame; “Tongues Will Wag”; “The Envoy’s Dilemna,” about a visit to Tajikistan; “Barring the Unforeseen”; “If You See Something Say Something,” the secret history of the Department of Homeland Security; “All Stories are Fiction”; and the very controversial “How Theater Failed America,” in which he contends that the regional theater powers that be have failed its workers, its actors and its audiences by focusing on subscriptions and building bigger and bigger stages, themes that resonated not always with agreement here and elsewhere.

“Well, it’s true,” he said. “I think as a result we’re shrinking audiences. We don’t take care of actors, for instance. We bring in people from the outside, there’s very little left of repertoire theater. People, truly gifted people, can’t afford to stay in the business.”

Daisey works with his wife Jean-Michele Gregory, who has been his director for the last decade, as well as editor and dramaturg. But it’s Daisey who’s the out-front guy, not she. I asked him if that ever creates tensions.

“Yeah, I suppose. Yeah, I think so,” he said. “I suppose it does. But you know, this relationship, I can’t think of anybody that has anything like this. The work slips over into the marriage, and the marriage slips into the work. It’s really, really intense. And I think and believe that this helps make our marriage strong and makes the work better. It’s an intimate process, you know. I mean we do everything together, we eat and sleep together, and we work together.”

Daisey, who is a lone provocateur on stage and in print, seems at times like a jilted lover. Two of the things he loves the most in his world—tech and theater—he has now taken on in tree shaking, thought provoking pieces that make you look differently at them.

If critics see him as a rebel, audiences are often stunned by his work. He is in an odd sort of limbo: his work is cutting edge, designed to provoke, make the powers that be tremble a little, and yet he’s a bit of a celebrity too, often written about, talked about and talked with. It’s a dangerous artistic world in some ways, like being the brazen filmmaker Michael Moore, to whom he’s sometimes compared.

If the New York Times rhapsodizes about him, lesser known folks like the Bugwalk blogger, upon seeing “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” said, “I left the theater in tears vowing to buy no electronic device that I don’t’ truly need, though there is no such thing as living a life that does not include increasing the misery of a thirteen-year-old Chinese girl. It cannot be done.”

Daisey probably cares about what others thing. He likely appreciates praise and worries about criticism. Or maybe not. None of the hoopla—which he seems to enjoy—will deter him. Take, for instance, his next little project.

It’s a monologue called “All the Hours in the Day.” And you guessed it: it’s a 24-hour performance that “charts the epic story of America’s essential character as a weaving together of Puritanism and anarchism.”

Shy he is not.

“All the Hours in the Day” will be performed at the Time Based Art Festival in Portland and the Under the Radar Festival in New York. “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” runs through April 10, and has already been extended through April 17.

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