American Utopias

by John Stoltenberg

Hugely entertaining theater isn’t usually also profoundly political. Authentic political theater is supposed to be self-important and polemical, right? Like earnest agitprop, loaded with Brechtish messaging and echt alienation. It’s not supposed to embrace you magnanimously in hilarity. So after laughing  so hard throughout Mike Daisey’s not-to-be-missed exuberance of humor now at Woolly Mammoth, you don’t expect to walk away later so transformed, strangely contemplative, and pondering your own place on the world stage. Which in the case of American Utopias is of course just fine, because it tickles us astonishingly…and then really catches us unawares.

Mike Daisey is riotously funny but he doesn’t do standup (see my previous post about his work). Mostly he sits, at a table, and, with a boundlessly playful stage presence, tells stories. In the case of American Utopias, they coalesce into a thoroughly absorbing, two-and-a-half-hour monologue about his trippy journeys to Burning Man and Walt Disney World and his more sobering reflections on the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.

The thing is, once we start laughing, we are already players in Daisey’s game, because we are laughing, almost always, in recognition of something. Something Daisey has held up to view for us. But it’s something we hadn’t looked at before, or something we hadn’t seen quite like that before. Something he wants us to see—through his extraordinary probe-through-culture-fog eyes—because once we see it, once we are awake not asleep (as he puts it)…we might, just possibly might, be changed.

It would be reductive to summarize what Daisey opens our eyes to in American Utopias. It might also be a spoiler. But I’ll give a hint: Now that megacorporations are officially persons (per the U.S. Supreme Court), they also get to be among Daisey’s dramatis personnae. Turns out they’re actually the off-stage protagonists, propelling and influencing every tale he tells. Which makes Daisey and the rest of us…what? The pawns? The peons? The antagonists? Eeek! But if we’ve been awakened by American Utopias, we might well find ourselves asking ourselves that question.