“He’s very good at what he does.” Despite 100 minutes of blistering and savagely funny assaults on the mogul-turned-pitchman-turned-megalomaniac, monologist Mike Daisey still pays Donald Trump credit in his one-man performance of The Trump Card, now playing at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. As an artist, Daisey can see himself in the skills that it takes for Trump to hold entire stadiums of adoring fans rapt with attention. Just as a monologist needs to “read” a room and gauge how much of the room is already on his side, a politician needs the same performance skills to rise to the dizzying heights that Trump has surveyed for the past year.
Fortunately for audiences, Daisey is blessed with similar abilities to command a packed room at attention with nothing but the sheer force of his voice. Seated behind a desk armed with only a few sheets of paper and a glass of water, Daisey doesn’t even need to roam the stage to dominate the room.
Daisey has built a career on extended riffs probing the excesses of larger-than-life-figures drunk with power such as Steve Jobs, P.T. Barnum, L. Ron Hubbard. The man has finally found the ultimate target in a man who, as Daisey puts it, has been famous simply for being rich for more than a quarter century. Daisey brings the audience along on a tour-de-force exploration of Trump’s long and strange journey from acerbic real estate developer to tribune of an aggrieved working class.
Don’t despair – it’s not only funny, but illuminating. Daisey acknowledges early on the absurdity of American theatergoers (“also known as, the Left”) ruminating that they “just haven’t heard enough about this person” to have formed an opinion yet and heading out to see such a performance. The man is everywhere – no small feat for such an unreconstructed figure of the 1980s. But Daisey points out that there is still plenty that urban audiences don’t know or understand about Trump’s rise and his appeal throughout the Heartland. It’s certainly true of the types of people with the disposable income to spend an evening “engaging with culture” – during the midst of a full-blown national electoral crisis, no less. We haven’t been watching his speeches. We haven’t been replaying episodes of The Apprentice. But Daisey has; a man who truly has sacrificed for his art, seeing as we have lately been on the topic of what exactly constitutes “sacrifice”.
He has also sat down for plenty of rounds of Trump: The Game. Discovering a copy of what Daisey describes as essentially “Monopoly for dogs” initially compelled him to begin developing the monologue, well before the escalator descent at Trump Tower in June of 2015 turned into a populist upswell. Daisey takes the audience along on a vivid journey that provides context for how Trump molded himself into a vessel for the xenophobic rage that rightwing figures have cultivated since the dawn of the Southern Strategy in the late 1960s. Daisey even allows some begrudging sympathy for the brute that Trump grew up to become, under the tutelage of his famously discriminatory father Fred Trump (immortalized as the shifty landlord “Old Man Trump” in lyrics by his tenant Woody Guthrie) and his attorney Roy Cohn, a former henchman of Joe McCarthy who Daisey describes as “the Emperor Palpatine to Trump’s Darth Vader”.
One has to admire Daisey’s tenacity in continuing to integrate the latest bonkers twists-and-turns of 2016 into his set, seamlessly adding in nods to the squabbles Trump has picked with his latest enemies – the grieving parents of Khizr Kahn and an Ashburn baby who had the temerity to cry during a Trump rally earlier in the day of the performance.
The Trump Card
August 2 – 7, 2016
Details and tickets
Directed by Isaac Butler, the production affords a lot of laughs along the way at the expense of Trump and his supporters – but doesn’t allow the audience off the hook for their own complicity. “You did this,” he tells the room. For the DC denizens whose interactions with honest-to-God Trump supporters are limited to Facebook debates with old high school classmates, Daisey’s perspective is invaluable. In the end, the political is the personal – he draws from his own family and life experiences in illustrating how citing statistics and facts until one is blue in the face will never be enough to sway someone who is ready to watch the entire system collapse. The time for persuasion and reaching out to forgotten communities has long since come and passed – a vital message for audiences that will undoubtedly include bewildered stewards of the institutions that so many are ready to burn to the ground.
The show gets under your skin, just as Trump does. I’ve found myself increasingly waking up in the morning slightly disoriented, wondering for an instant if I had only dreamed it. Donald Trump? But it’s no Phillip Roth alternative history. This is happening. And Daisey hints that come what may, this is not an aberration. Trump won’t be the last of his ilk. He’s merely one symptom of a disease that won’t be cured in one day on November.
The Trump Card . Created and performed by Mike Daisey . Directed by Isaac Butler. Presented by Woolly Mammoth Theatre . Reviewed by Daron Christopher.