A talented voice for the theater-cynic in all of us
|Victory Gardens Theatre presents|
|How Theater Failed America|
|Written and performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory
At Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
Through May 2nd | Tickets: $25 | more info
reviewed by Catey Sullivan
“You should not have come here,” begins Mike Daisey in his one-man tour de force of nature, How Theater Failed America. For one thing, he continues, the title of the show sucks – ( “What is this, a fucking film strip?”) For another, Daisey’s simultaneously bleak and brilliant autobiographical walk down the memory lane of his career will outrage the politically correct. It will also send those who view theater as a sacred, noble art spiraling and screaming down a wild rabbit hole of profane realty. (Spoiler alert: Those who want to cling to the myth of “community” in theater should stay home and stick to their Twitter confabs.) It’s fair to ask why anyone other than out-of-work actors (which is to say – more or less – actors) should give a whit about the death of theater or about Daisey’s scathing monologue. Will the grid go dark if all of the world’s liberal arts grads collectively decide never to mount another revival of A View from the Bridge? Does the world’s well-being rest on an endless cycle of revisionist Ibsen? Of course not. Yet this is where Daisey’s explosive and formidable talent becomes so gloriously apparent. Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory, How Theater Failed America will be powerfully entertaining even to those who could not care less about whether Becket and Brecht vanish from the face of the earth, washed away by the likes of “The Little Mermaid”. As for those with a vested interest in the arts, they will find themselves repeatedly shocked and undeniably entertained by the galvanizing candor of Daisey’s observations. The man articulates truths that just aren’t spoken aloud and in doing so, breaks what often feels like a conspiracy of silence among artists. (Question the existence of “community” in local theatrical circles, and you’ll all but be accused of heresy.)
Weaving deeply personal stories into the context of the arts in the 21st century, Daisey hits the audience with a barrage of blazing immediacy and devastating honesty. While it’s autobiographical, Gregory’s direction excises the piece of all self-indulgence and paces it so well the two-hour run time feels like 15 minutes, This is a story about MIke Daisey’s life in the theater, but it is also a story about life in general in all its dazzling, manic absurdity and free-falling despair. How Theater Failed America is about how doing an ill-advised version of Jean Genet’s The Balcony with an albino, a dwarf, a mud pit and a perpetually drunk director can prove to be one’s redemption. And if one achieves that redemption by being forced to masturbate before an audience that includes little children? Then surely there is hope for even the most depressed, hopeless and rudderless among us.
Long before Daisey segues into the suicidal segment of his career (his crystalline description of doing the Dead Man’s float night after night on an icy Maine lake is almost unbearably vivid), he offers a brief lesson in How Theater Works. Anyone who has perused any given season at the Goodman already knows about the “ freeze-dried” actors imported from New York on a regular basis. What perhaps isn’t so obvious: That artistic directors are actually more like factory foremen, that board members are forever trying to run the machinery and that plays aren’t really plays so much as “slots” (as in the winter slot, the spring slot, the minority slot).
Daisey has no illusions about what prompts the inclusion of his show in a season: that conversation never starts with an artistic director saying something like “I love your work and want to bring you to my stage.” It instead usually starts with a managing director saying something like “You probably heard we had to cancel our ‘Pericles.’ " Theaters turn to him because he offers a show with no set demands and the smallest possible cast size. Were it possible to stage a show with a cast of less than one, he’d be out of work, Daisey admits.
His experience teaching is similarly forthright and sentiment-free – which makes its emotional wallop all the more powerful . In a segment that could draw tears from a stone, Daisey recalls a season wherein he shaped a bunch of thuggish juvenile delinquents into an award-winning one-act company. If you think this chapter merits a “Stand and Deliver” moment, expect to have your rosy romantic expectations dashed under a cold stone of reality. After the win, Daisey describes his cold, bone-certain knowledge that his teenage star – a deeply troubled boy for whom theater became a lifeline and who dreamed of going to college and majoring in acting – was a loser whose aspirations would never become actualities. There’s triumph of the human spirit, and then there’s the harsh, bitter reality that some people cannot escape the dead-ends of their own, sad, uncontrollable circumstances.
Daisey’s youthful attempts at creating his own theater company in western Maine are similarly un-romantic and, often, riotously funny in the telling. His story of living on rationed Raman noodles and putting on shows held together (literally, in the case of the light board) with duct tape is a misadventure that every 20something, self-appointed artistic director of an Off-Loop start-up would do well to heed. That you can’t eat idealism (or even fashion an adequate sound design from it) is the least of the perils faced by young, starry-eyed artists certain that their revival of Suburbia can change if not the world, than at the very least, their community.
Yet for all Daisey’s clear-eyed vision , How Theater Failed America is hardly a cynical show. That the actor survived masturbating to Genet is an ironclad testament to the fact that talent, in the end, can trump even the most daunting of obstacles. Yes, audiences are getting smaller, older and disturbing the actors with their wheezing oxygen tanks. Daisey’s touring nonetheless. And with a cracking fine show. If he has succeeded among theater’s many failures, there’s hope for the arts yet .