Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Oracle of Daisey Has Spoken

Having wrapped up its 25th anniversary season (in which the company took on the challenge of performing five plays in repertory), the Shotgun Players filled its February calendar with a new undertaking, The Blast Festival, which aimed to "explode the boundaries of storytelling with innovative performances by local and national theater artists. We think life is dynamic, changing, ephemeral, strange, and beautiful. Theater should be too."

Although this mini-festival included several dance companies (as well as artists like Rotimi Agbabiaka, Megan Hopp, Joshua Silverstein, Kyle Blaze, and the San Francisco Neo-Futurists), my main interest was the provocateur/monologist, Mike Daisey, who has increasingly become the antidote to apathy and anti-intellectualism in America.

Having attended many of Daisey's monologues -- which range from examining the lives of Nicola Tesla, P.T. Barnum, Steve Jobs, and Bertolt Brecht to analyzing Shakespeare's four great tragedies (Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and Romeo and Juliet) -- I've frequently found myself thinking of him as following in the footsteps of the late, great Anna Russell (whose hilarious lectures about opera and classical music developed a loyal international following).

However, with his three latest monologues (The Trump Card, The End of Journalism, and This Is Not Normal), I've come to realize that Daisey is fast becoming the American version of Cassandra (Priam's daughter whose prophecies about the Trojan War were ignored, scorned, and scoffed at, yet tragically and frighteningly came true).

In the months prior to the 2016 Presidential election, Daisey was busy performing his eerily prescient monologue, The Trump Card, in theatres around the United States. In retrospect, that monologue has become even more chilling than it seemed when it was live-streamed from Town Hall in New York City.

That was then. This is now. Having entertained Bay area audiences in recent years at Berkeley Rep, Shotgun Players, and the California Shakespeare Theater, Daisey was one of the key attractions at the Blast Festival, where his program note stated:
"Over these two weekends I am birthing two new monologues. I have been working on the underpinnings of The End of Journalism for five years, but it was made more urgent by the election. The other was anticipated by The Trump Card, but I deeply wish it had never needed to see the light of day. Because my work doesn't use written text or rehearsals, these are the very first moments of the life of these shows."

To think or not to think. That, my friends, is Mike Daisey's question. Whether in the age of Trumpism it is wiser to follow Steve Bannon's advice (to "keep your mouth shut") or to resist the rape of democracy. As Shakespeare famously wrote:
"Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
that Flesh is heir to? 'Tis a consummation
devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; aye, there's the rub,
for in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
when we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
must give us pause."
While the words Shakespeare put in Hamlet's mouth seem painfully relevant to the United States in 2017, like many monologists, Daisey often structures his performances along a path which ultimately take audiences back to the show's beginning. Listening to him is like being lulled into an extremely informative dream state, falling deeper and deeper into a web of intriguing contradictions and then slowly rising, like a deep sea diver headed back toward the ocean's surface and, hopefully, feeling safe again (if, perhaps, a bit sadder and wiser for the experience).

Daisey launches into The End of Journalism by recalling his experience visiting an old friend who was in the hospital. As he describes his friend's hospital room, his gaze is distracted by the patient's uneaten meal. A standard dish of orange Jell-O accompanied by a portion of salisbury steak with mushrooms (a dish Daisey fondly remembers from his school days and, like any chubby man, can't resist) sits untouched on a tray. As he ruminates about the medical profession's tendency to preface anything said to someone his size with a warning about the necessity of losing weight, he touches on matters of clinical insensitivity and fat shaming that may surprise some members of the audience, but are familiar territory for those like Daisey (and myself) who have been fat for most of their lives.

As he looks around his friend's hospital room, Daisey also notices that the television monitor is fixed on Fox News, although the sound has been mercifully muted. This takes him down the rabbit hole to the mid-15th century, when Johanes Gutenberg created a printing press that used movable pieces of type fashioned from an alloy consisting of lead, tin, and antimony. With the ability to publish work for mass distribution, knowledge that was once only available to the aristocracy could soon spread to the peasants of the Middle Ages, inspiring some to yearn for a better life.

Daisey's narrative twists and turns from the use of the printing press for advertising up to Roger Ailes who, in the late 1990s, decided to provide the exact opposite of what mainstream media was offering the public by creating the Fox News Channel. Along the way, Daisey describes how the American theatre grew to depend upon newspaper critics whose reviews could furnish valuable "pull quotes" that could be used as marketing tools to boost ticket sales.

After 20 years of traveling the country and doing pre-show publicity interviews, he began noticing how many newspapers had been forced to merge (or simply disappeared) in regional cities. The result was that fewer critics were writing reviews, more pull quotes were being taken out of context, and some pull quotes had been reduced to the use of a single word. Although he does not mention David Merrick (a/k/a The Abominable Showman)  and press agent Harvey Sabinson's infamous 1962 marketing stunt after Subways Are For Sleeping received mostly negative reviews, he uses the pull quote as an example of how mainstream media has continued to lose credibility with its readers.

While wondering whether a case for journalistic integrity can still be made, he points to Donald Trump's incessant whining about "fake news" and the appearance of a new term for lies ("alternative facts"). Waxing nostalgic about the days when newspapers like The New York Times contained full-page ads for automobiles and women's fashion, he wonders whether anyone still reads newspapers anymore and points to the inability to distinguish any news source as credible when they all appear to look the same through the web browser on one's computer or smartphone. Bill Maher recently added his two cents to that argument.

* * * * * * * * *
The End of Journalism almost feels like a puff piece about a disappearing piece of Americana compared to Daisey's newest, and darkest monologue. This Is Not Normal starts innocently enough with Daisey describing the peacefulness of watching the ocean's waves roll in on a beach and recede; a cycle that has continued (regardless of politics) for centuries. There is a calming serenity to the process which, in the age of Donald Trump, would seem to offer substantial emotional comfort until the audience learns that this Sea of Tranquility is on the surface of the moon. As Daisey reflects on how, throughout 2016, he tried to warn people about what might happen while performing The Trump Card, he realizes that Roy Cohn is sitting right next to him, primed for an argument.

Making no apology for the fact that Donald Trump is most likely a moron, Daisey reminds his audience how important it is to always believe whatever they are told by an autocrat. He then takes the audience on a nightmarish trip which includes getting mugged on the Spanish Steps in Rome during his honeymoon, meeting Masha Gessen while at the Russian Tea Room, witnessing the death of John Keats on February 23, 1821, in a tiny room close to the Spanish Steps, and having coffee with his ex-wife on the day after Donald Trump won the 2016 election.

Insisting that this particular monologue is not about politics, he focuses instead on the danger of normalizing a monster like Donald Trump and the temptation many people will feel (and probably succumb to) when the going gets rough. While part of This Is Not Normal is devoted to the importance of live theatre, this may well be Daisey's most deeply disturbing monologue. I certainly hope it will be live-streamed so it can reach a larger audience and be preserved on the Internet for future reference. It's a masterpiece of storytelling, much like sitting around a campfire under a starry sky while someone tries to to scare the shit out of you with a particularly effective ghost story.

There are moments in This Is Not Normal that may seem more deeply introspective than Daisey's other monologues but, at the end of his tale, Daisey finds himself back on the moon, overlooking the Sea of Tranquility, and ready to spar with Roy Cohn. However, Daisey has a trick up his sleeve, one which the smug and exquisitely evil Cohn hasn't anticipated. I won't tell you what it is (that would ruin the bittersweet surprise ending), but I'll finish this column with a little gift for the slimy closet case who aided Senator Joseph McCarthy and became a friend, fixer, and mentor to Donald Trump.

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