“Known fabulist” or not, Mike Daisey is an incredible storyteller. Despite the still simmering controversy over fact manipulation and hyperbole discovered in previous incarnations of his smash monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Daisey has reappeared on the Woolly Mammoth Stage, chastened yet still near the peak of his powers. And Mike Daisey at 95% is still electric.
Daisey’s monologue attempts to reconcile his and other Americans’ Apple tech obsession with the dirty secrets of Apple’s evolution, both in the tech hotbed of Cupertino, California and the grim factories of Shenzhen, China. In doing so, he seeks to make his audience reflect upon the massive social impact and very human cost of their shiny mobile phones, laptops, and assorted electronics, both Apple and other.
After watching Daisey for five minutes, his strength as a storyteller becomes apparent. Besides his keen eye for observational detail, he is a master of pacing and dynamics. Sitting at a simple metal desk, bathed in LED light from the spare geometric backdrop, he draws the audience in with a quiet, conversational tone before blasting them back into their seats with hearty bellows. He continues on in almost hypnotic undulations until he wields an iron grip on the audience’s attention.
Daisey details a lifelong love affair with Apple, describing late night typing and programming sessions and obsessive upgrading. As a lifer, he seems content to paint himself as mixture of fanboy and sage, reveling in every new Apple product while distancing himself from the herd via philosophical musings and riotous impressions of hardcore geeks. This is Daisey at his most accessible as he connects with the receptive crowd on a plane of mutual love of iPhones and MacBooks.
Daisey also confesses to a conflicted relationship with his patron saint, Steve Jobs. He gushes about Jobs’ intellect and vision, lifting him up as a sort of spiritual father in tech geekery. As he recounts stories of Jobs’ personal reactions to his Agony monologue, Daisey poorly conceals his satisfaction at even registering on Jobs’ radar. Even so, he impugns Jobs’ ruthless business practices and willful blindness to his suppliers’ terrible labor conditions. Daisey’s initial reverence for Jobs makes his eventual condemnation all the more powerful, like a disappointed child realizing that their parents aren’t actually superheroes, but rather flawed and very human.
Daisey balances this biography with dystopian descriptions of technology giant Foxconn, from massive cafeterias that seat 10,000, to 36 hour worker shifts, to a grim skyline of buildings lined with suicide nets. At the most harrowing point of the show, he uses potent imagery to force the audience into the mind of a promising worker, not unlike many hopeful young Americans, as he is forced to make a terrible choice.
Daisey’s perfect confluence of showmanship and apparent personal outrage makes a compelling moral case about the terrible ignored truth of America’s beloved gadgets.
And that “truth” is inevitably the show’s one Achilles heel. Though it has already been dissected exhaustively, the specter of Daisey’s earlier fabrications looms large over the proceedings. He finally addresses his “truthy” shortcomings of late toward the final scene of the monologue. Daisey concedes the possibility that everything he said is a lie, seeming pensive and almost beaten, before pivoting and righteously redirecting the criticism at the factory owners and tech companies.
It’s a half-hearted apology, but his anger doesn’t seem entirely misplaced. If Daisey is indeed as sincere as he claims, one can only imagine his frustration at seeing his well documented exploitation minimized because of some made-up source details. Daisey isn’t a journalist per se, and as such should be able to apply creative license as he pleases. Nonetheless, he speaks with such conviction and passion that it almost hurts to acknowledge the possibility of details conjured out of thin air.
While Daisey has damaged his brand as a man who speaks truth to power, his singular transportive power and creative energy are worth a trip to Woolly Mammoth. Sitting alone, perhaps now more than ever, he uses his hypnotic voice and graceful, expressive hands to transfix his audience with a tale of triumphant innovation and terrible abuse. Only once the spell has broken will you stop and decide whether to accept all the “truthiness” that you have just heard.
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs
Written and Performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory
Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Reviewed by Ben Demers
Running Time: 2 hours with no intermission
Erica Laxson . DCMetroTheaterArts
Charles Isherwood . New York Times
Trey Graham . City Paper
Alan Zilberman . BrightestYoungThings
Joanna Castle Miller . WeLoveDC
Benjamin R. Freed . DCist
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld
Tim Smith . Baltimore Sun