“You should not have come.”
That’s how Mike Daisey opens his monologue at Woolly Mammoth, acknowledging that this is going to be a different kind of show. He’s very wrong, mind you: this show has a self-selecting audience that is sure to be glad they came. The show’s title assures that. Anyone who reads “How Theater Failed America” on a program schedule and thinks “that’s something I want to see!” is pretty certain to enjoy it, since anyone who isn’t predisposed to be interested in a critical examination of the business of modern theater isn’t going to be jazzed by a moniker that holds up a metaphorical axe and grindstone.
That’s really too bad, since this is a show that anyone can take something away from. (Well, presuming they’re not afraid of the word “fuck,” which Daisey uses pretty liberally.) Daisey intertwines examination, analysis, personal anecdote and touching revelation to create something worth hearing even if you couldn’t care less about what ends up on local or national stages.Daisey addresses the issue of what the title communicates – both correctly and incorrectly – right at the opening of the show, as well as enumerating some of the likely preconceptions that this somewhat niche audience brings in with them. “I hope he goes after Disney,” he intones, in the voice of a theoretical audience member. IPods, the Internet, youth and attention spans, Reagan, funding… Daisey mentions them all and makes it clear that if you’re expecting a Jello Biafra style hit-piece on specific folks then you’re probably out of luck.
Which isn’t to say there’s no critical analysis here, or that there’s not dissatisfaction. This isn’t a defense of theater in disguise either, though Daisey’s sharp edges and biting wit are accompanied by an obvious love of live performance and stories of rosy and not-so-rosy memories of a life on stage. Daisey’s piece is a curious combination of feature story and biography that works well, each part providing illumination for the other.
Daisey’s control of the room is a big part of why it works. There were moments I missed because people nearby were laughing so hard, but during the powerful moments you could have heard a pin drop. Daisey leads everyone along the emotional path he wants them on and nobody wanders away. The only point when the audience falls out of lockstep is in the final moments, when Daisey makes an effort at wrap-up and summary.
It’s the weakest part of the act, though that’s partly because it’s unnecessary and mostly because he’s insured that it can’t work perfectly: How Theater Failed America isn’t an indictment, it’s a portrait of where we’ve been and where we are, both in theater specifically and culture in general. There’s nothing wrong with an artist returning to the canvas in order to point out certain key bits and summarize some of what they were trying to say; it’s just unnecessary. A good work stands on its own and leaves you the spots to plug in your own questions and determine your own answers without someone – whether they be the artist or Cliff’s Notes – handing them to you.
This is a good work.
HOW THEATER FAILED AMERICA
created & performed by MIKE DAISEY
directed by JEAN-MICHELE GREGORY
January 7 – 18, 2009
WOOLLY MAMMOTH THEATRE COMPANY
641 D St NW, Washington, DC 20004