Mike Daisey is a rare kind of artist, one who can forsake all theatrical bells and whistles and still captivate an audience via sheer charisma and wry wit. In the Woolly Mammoth premiere of his incisive new monologue American Utopias, Daisey uses his preacher’s magnetism and fierce creativity to examine the surprising, if fuzzy, links between Burning Man Festival, Disney World, and the Occupy Wall Street Movement.
As in his previous work, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, American Utopias starts with Daisey entering, stage right, and sitting at simple black desk on an otherwise empty stage. Daisey opens with his journey to Burning Man Festival, quickly drawing the audience in with the broad gestures and commanding presence of a preacher ministering to his flock. He employs meticulous detail as the lush greenery of the Pacific Northwest gives way to the arid Black Rock Desert, where he finds a colorful, bewildering party blooming in the desolate flatness. He charts the Festival’s colorful neon landscape, painting himself as a total outsider, lost among a psychedelic swirl of bonfires, drug-fueled raves, and cars that look like giant animals.
Daisey soon pivots to a long-overdue visit to his cousins in New Jersey, who reveal a penchant for obsessively detailed house parties and an almost cultish zeal for Disney World. Regretting his many years without visiting his relatives and, perhaps identifying a good source of theatrical material, Daisey agrees to accompany his cousin’s rabid clan to “the Happiest Place on Earth” – a choice that he quickly and hilariously comes to regret.
As his tale unfolds, he seamlessly incorporates enlightening history lessons and amusing anecdotes, including an examination of Walt Disney’s tumultuous childhood and a visit to the Bavarian progenitors of Cinderella’s castle (and indeed every successive Disney castle).
The strongest element of the Magic Kingdom thread is Daisey’s bittersweet analysis of the competing expectations of children and their parents. Daisey amusingly reframes Disney World as a playground for thousands of little prisoners and their watchful jailers, who are constantly at odds over “getting their money’s worth” – mid afternoon naps be damned. Through hyperbolic images of children exploding with glee and militaristic parents scamming their way to the front of the line, Daisey paints the Magic Kingdom as the technicolor flashpoint between hopeful dreams and sobering reality.
After the dizzying sights and sounds of Burning Man and Disney World, the narrator pivots to Zucotti Park, a quiet space in New York City’s financial district circumscribed by oppressive steel and glass. Daisey’s account of his own conflicted experience with Occupy Wall Street is his most personal and serious segment. He reflects upon the nature of corporate power and government repression, but also the uplifting feeling of collective action. He memorably takes himself to task for giving into his mortal fear of “dorkiness” and observing the vital movement from a comfortable distance. I got chills as he recounted back to back conversations with a young protestor and equally young police officer set on an inevitable path toward conflict, while Daisey watches helplessly from the sidelines.
Daisey then rotates through his settings for the rest of the performance, building and entwining each narrative with the help of Klyph Stanford’s subtly shifting lighting and projection design. All in all, with the exception of the projections, which we’ve not seen from him before, the show is textbook Daisey: playing the everyman as he mines subcultures, both familiar and esoteric, for entertainment and philosophical insights about our complicated world.
Closes April 21, 2013
Woolly Mammoth Theatre
641 D St NW
2 hours, 30 minutes, without intermission
Tickets: $45 – $70
Tuesdays thru Sundays
However, it’s often a tall order to keep that thread from unraveling. When compared to previous shows where the parallels are a bit more clear, Daisey relies too heavily on a loose concept of “power of collective assembly” to pull it all together. He paints Burning Man as a hippie art festival with few restrictions, Disney World largely as a corporatized commodity over which parents battle to give their screaming brood, and Occupy Wall Street as a lopsided tug of war with the fabric of American society.
Even after a dramatic epilogue that was supposed to explain Daisey’s thesis, I still was left scratching my head as to the real message of it all, besides “when people get together in large groups, interesting things happen”. But if you can take Daisey’s soapbox speech with a grain of salt, American Utopias is still a compelling, entertaining ride through America’s labyrinthine subconscious, narrated by one of our most gifted storytellers.
American Utopias . created and performed by Mike Daisey . Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory . Lighting and projections design: Klyph Stanford . Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company . Reviewed by Ben Demers.
Susan Berlin . Talkin’Broadway
Patrick Pho . WeLoveDC
(unattributed) . BrightestYoungThings
Alexis Victoria Hauk . DCist
John Stoltenberg . MagicTime!
Winnefred Ann Frolik . WomanAroundTown
Jennifer Perry . BroadwayWorld
Chris Klimek . City Paper
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Mark Dewey . DCMetroTheaterArts
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Robert Michael Oliver . MDTheatreGuide