Saturday, June 21, 2008

Theater Review: How Theater Failed America

There are two things that disappoint me about reviewing Mike Daisey’s latest monologue performance, How Theater Failed America. First, the show closes tomorrow, so no matter how much I praise his work, it will do him no good. And second, this blog is only two days old and nobody reads it yet. So it will help him even less.

Having worked in theater in a variety of performance, writing, and yes, administrative jobs, I was surprised to learn how common my experience must be, judging from Daisey’s own trajectory. Less surprising is how universal the desire for a Reformation Movement in the American theater is… or at least a very public gossip session. It’s too early yet to say whether Daisey will be the industry’s Martin Luther, but it is impossible to confuse him with Thomas More, and he’s certainly no gossipy hen.

The fact is How Theater Failed America is more sophisticated than any manifesto, far funnier and more entertaining than an excommunication, and unlike the average Union Square zealot or university stowaway, Mike Daisey knows what of he speaks. Many times his performance made me think that if South Park’s Eric Cartman grew to adulthood and used his powers for good instead of evil, this is what it might look like.

At 35, he draws on over 15 years’ worth of theatrical experience, and seems to equate each gig he’s had with the other: from joining five college classmates to run a rat-infested ramshackle summer rep in western Maine (where the moose to person ratio is twelve to one), to masturbating pro bono at a garage theater in Seattle (seating capacity 17), to performing his acclaimed monologues at some of our nation’s most prestigious venues. And that is as it should be.

If one defines himself as a lover of the theater, he doesn’t see each gig as a building block on the way to a career but rather as evidence of one. And although he’s been at this for nearly two decades yet most of us have only heard of him around that same time we heard of Obama, Daisey’s thesis is not hard to infer: his recent success is part of our problem.

In a refreshingly honest evening, Daisey starts off by telling us many of his bookings come when theaters/institutions/machines have had to cancel a larger, more expensive show and must now find something relevant and efficient/cheap and easy with which to fill the season/slot. The fact that more than one artistic director/CEO have greenlit Daisey while having no firsthand knowledge of his work comes as rather shocking.

But the piece is surprisingly non-confrontational. Indeed, the fact that Daisey performs at the very type of theaters he calls to task is an irony I suppose we’ll have to live with. They won’t blacklist him for this. He isn’t really attacking the status quo, but tries his best to explain how it came to be. American theater is being attacked primarily by one thing in Daisey’s view, and it has nothing to do with politics, money, audiences, or the way things are done in Europe. Instead, it can be boiled down to fear.

Artistic leaders are rebels at heart, says Daisey, but they are saddled with administrative jobs. Can we imagine Che Guevara changing the water cooler or submitting his receipts to Fidel? But whether these revolutionaries have it made or are barely making it, they know they could have less. And though we know that to corporations, job one is self preservation, we neglect to realize that our institutional theaters are corporations (in fact, nonprofit corporations). If they fail, Daisey wonders, then what will that say about the time, effort, and people that were invested all those years? Better to keep the concern going so we never have to find out. Hence, serious theaters spend more time hiring marketers, fund raisers, and architects than they do putting on good plays.

But this is a personal issue for Mike Daisey, not an exercise in forensics, not an essay, not, ahem, a blog post. In an extremely touching episode a little over halfway through, we learn how theater once saved his life. He doesn’t say it like that, he doesn’t even begin to. But that is one of the special hues that punctuate How Theater Failed America.

You see, Daisey is a loquacious man. To make a forte out of the self-composed monologue format, I guess it helps. One can see how with a little beer, a bad breakup, and some time to kill, he could be absolutely grating. But he has the kind of vocabulary that a democratic version of the English language would give to all of us (though he’s a tad redundant in his choice of profanity). He drops metaphors and fifty-cent words like he’s bailing water. But he talks around some of the most poignant, perceptive ideas and images one human being can ever communicate to a room of others, and you can't help but be nudged in a rather sublime direction. If he spelled out these sentiments we’d all feel embarrassed. But the way his narrative is structured is what separates this from a lecture and elevates it to some of the highest and most moving art.

It also doesn’t hurt that Daisey is hilarious. Absolutely hilarious. Just sitting there, he’s funny. Talking, not talking, scrunching up his face, or showing us a thin-lipped but billboard size grimacey grin scrawled onto his head.

If there is a call to arms, Daisey doesn’t express it as such, either. Instead it is a declaration that things are going to change in the American theater. It is a foregone conclusion, he tells us. They will change because all it takes to change it is to conquer fear. Just as great art is made by not caring what the critics will think, our American theaters must learn not to care whether or not they get new buildings or can afford the rent in the ones they’re in. The young are the only animals who know no fear, and Daisey assures us that they will step up and fill their role. He doesn’t think they’ll make the same mistakes, and come full circle. By the end of the show you almost believe him.

I reckon that Mike Daisey has known at least as much fear as the average person. And yet he survives. For as soon as you know you’ll survive, what is there left to be afraid of?

How Theater Failed America

Created and Performed by Mike Daisey

Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory

Runs through June 22, 2008, at the Barrow Street Theater

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