Mike Daisey :: American Utopias
If you happened to have wandered along Washington Street across from the Ritz on Friday night sometime after ten, you would have come across a crowd of some 400 standing on the corner. The focus of their attention was a burly, middle-aged man standing on some sort of utility box. He was shouting, though I really couldn't hear him; and, anyway, I had run into a friend coming out of a restaurant, who looked over and asked: "Who is that, Michael Moore?"
No, it wasn't Moore hosting a flash-mob outside the poshest condos in town. It was Mike Daisey, the monologist as controversial as Moore. A year ago his solo show about Steve Jobs came under scrutiny when his account of harsh working conditions of Apple workers in China was questioned; not that they didn't exist, but that Daisey included second-hand information as first-person testimony. That he was performing the show at New York's Public Theatre at the time only intensified the coverage.
His latest work, "American Utopias," takes on another dead American icon: Walt Disney; but there are no exposes of bad working conditions at the Magic Kingdom (unless you consider working there at all to be bad working conditions). Instead he focuses on the way Disney re-imagined the notion of public/private enterprises, specifically EPCOT - the futuristic village that the entertainment entrepreneur imagined in the Florida swamps. EPCOT, an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, was meant to be a city of the future; instead it devolved into a kitschy theme park imagining the world of tomorrow as thought of in 1982. The reason? Disney died and his plans for building a model city of tomorrow were thrashed by the less-visionary corporate leadership that took over his corporation.
Daisey's explanation of Disney's thwarted vision is that heart of his piece, which plays like a recited, longish New Yorker article. Along the way he touches upon two other public-private constructs - one social, the other political - that are part of the Zeitgeist: the Burning Man Festival, in which a city of 50,000 is constructed in the Nevada desert every September for one week, only to vanish, like a drug-induced Brigadoon. The other is the Occupy Movement's takeover of Zuccotti Park in Wall Street for two months in 2011, spawning an activist movement that reverberates through the present day. His observations are pointed and funny; his manner forceful, yet self-effacing: at first he can't take going to Zuccotti Park, but instead attends a faux-Occupy meeting in Brooklyn for those too wimpy to go to the real thing.
At one point he jokes he can talk for a long time without stopping. Loquaciousness is the key to his art.
Not that it is bad - he kept me enraptured for two hours with his cascading series of anecdotes and observations. He comes off as an insightful, middle-aged white heterosexual with a talent to put blog posts into rants. Using no props or projections, just him sitting behind a wooden table, he skillfully ties his stories together; though I could have done without the sentimentality that creeps in towards the end. Never having seen him before, I wondered what the fuss was about; and I wasn't disappointed. I wished he had concluded the evening in the dark of the theater and not on the corner of Avery and Washington. Breaking that fourth wall only felt like a gimmick and the thrust of Daisey's argument was lost in the din of traffic. And, hey, aren't flash crowds so last year?
"American Utopias" was performed Friday and Saturday, Feb. 16 and 17, 2013 at the Paramount Center Mainstage, 559 Washington Street, Boston, MA. For more information, the ArtsEmerson website.