by John Stoltenberg
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.