Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: August, 2012

August: Osage County

When you’ve sat through a three-and-a-half-hour play and you feel as if not more than ninety minutes have gone by, either your mental faculties are waning or you’ve just witnessed a great work of theater. In the case of August: Osage County by Tracy Letts (in a riveting new production at the Keegan Theatre), it’s definitely the latter.

I honestly can’t figure out what makes this three-act Pulitzer Prize-winning play such a powerhouse. Sprawling sagas about dysfunctional families abound in American theater. Eugene O’Neill comes to mind. But you can often feel yourself growing older as you suffer through them. Not so with Osage County, whose indelibly idiosyncratic characters command your attention from the get-go with every glance and breath.

Under the sure-handed direction of Mark A. Rhea, the entire cast of thirteen gives one of the best ensemble performances I’ve seen. Rena Cherry Brown as the pill-popping matriarch tears up the rug, and our hearts. Susan Marie Rhea, Belen Pifel, and Karen Novack as her three damaged daughters serve up heapings of humor and pathos. And I was touched by Eric Lucas’s sheriff—a sensitive, upstanding guy who just happens into a family gathering that is ripping apart at the seams.

At the preview I saw, the audience gave an immediate standing ovation. The play—a hit on Broadway, where I first saw it—is staggeringly well written, a clockwork construction that winds up so much tragicomic tension that at the end it goes off like a fusillade of emotional time bombs.

But be assured: Once it begins, you enter a different time zone.

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Mike Daisey

In an ideal world, one should know as little as possible about a Mike Daisey performance before attending. Just know you’re going to be enthralled by a solo storyteller/raconteur who is without peer in contemporary American theater. And maybe know the topic.

That’s how blank of expectations my brain was when I saw two prior Daisey monologues, The Last Cargo Cult and How Theater Failed America, both at Woolly Mammoth, both of which knocked me out. The staging didn’t vary much. He sat behind a table. He began to spin a tale. And that was it, I was hooked—in a way that can’t be compared to any other live-performance experience I’ve ever had.

This week I saw two more Daisey pieces, The Orient Express (Or, the Value of Failure) and The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. And both times I went in knowing what felt to me like way too much. For ever since the veracity of some of Daisey’s Agony and Ecstasy narrative was notoriously called into question by NPR in January, there has been a glut of press about what turned into a certifiable scandal.

NPR—which sanctimoniously fancies itself America’s keeper of journalistic conscience—was all in a tizzy because some of what Daisey said about a site visit to where Apple computers are manufactured in China never actually happened. What Daisey described about the deplorable and deadly working conditions, documented by other news media, was not at issue—just his embellished telling of how he learned about them.

Well, geez, I thought. How did Daisey’s theatrical artistic license suddenly get to be an issue of state when most Americans are still clueless about the sprawling history of U.S. government-sanctioned lies and coverups—for instance the utter fabrication upon which was based our going to war in Iraq? (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, look up Curveball, the nickname for the “informant” whose concocted story of mobile biological-weapons labs snookered U.S. intelligence and Secretary of State Colin Powell and was just what President George W. Bush needed to justify the war he’d already intended to wage.)

I mean, really. Some perspective, please.

Still, as I kept following the Daisey debacle, something in me was a little troubled. His embellished storytelling was being touted as a breach of trust with his audience. Was it? And was that how I felt too?

Fact is, I finally realized, at some level I did feel a bit betrayed. So I was not planning to see his controversial Agony and Ecstasy when it returned modified to Woolly Mammoth. No hard feelings. I just wasn’t up to having my aficionado emotions toyed with.

Then I learned about a new piece Daisey was developing that he was going to perform free, one night only, The Orient Express (Or, the Value of Failure). Advance press said that in it he tackles the Agony and Ecstasy scandal head on. OMG. I had to be there.

I don’t want to give anything away, but with Value of Failure Daisey does something that is to my knowledge unprecedented on stage in the personal-ethical arena of honesty and accountability and in the public-political zone of belief and bamboozlement. If it comes to town again, just see it.

That redemptively transformative theatrical experience under my belt, I was ready to see The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. It turned out to be the very best I’ve seen Daisey do.

And he’s a very hard act to follow.