Photo: Ursa Waz
If there were any concerns that Mike Daisey’s infamous This American Life scandal that rocked both the tech and theater worlds last year would leave any lasting marks on Daisey’s ability to draw an audience, they disappeared the minute I walked into the packed lobby of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Instead of doubt there was a palpable energy of anticipation among patrons waiting to see his latest piece, American Utopias. The buzz was heightened by the club-like atmosphere of the decorated lobby. I stood next to a carousel horse with a sign that said, “Ride Me”. In fact almost everything in the lobby had instructions for patrons like, “Tweet Me” and “Feel Me.” Also there was fur. So much fur.
There was one reminder of the events of last year. In the program Woolly Mammoth disclosed the following: “The management also wishes to remind you that this is a true story, and like every story told in every medium, all stories are fiction.”
However, the past was out of sight and out of mind as Mike Daisey performed in front of a packed house and not only delivered the brand of thought-provoking and comedic storytelling that he is known for, but also managed to take his monologue game up a level — something I did not think was even possible until now.
Daisey’s American Utopias explores the idyllic yet fleeting experiences of community between three seemingly different yet similar establishments: Disney World, Burning Man, and the Occupy Movement. Connecting the dots are the themes of public-private partnerships, quests to create an ideal world, and shared community experiences. Each event gathers people together in order to create their vision of an ideal society, one that exists for a finite amount of time before disappearing into the fabric of time.
Daisey delivers in classic Daisey fashion: enjoyable sarcastic banter to paint his first-hand experiences (in this case the arid conditions of Burning Man, ornate details of the Magic Kingdom, or his inability to pitch a tent), points punctuated with just the right amount of salty language, and hand gestures that evoke as much energy and emotion as his words. All of this and more originating from the seated confines of his table complete with notes, a glass of water (which is apparently used for dramatic effect), and handkerchief to wipe his ever perspiring brow. If you were a fan of any of his previous works then you will not be disappointed. If you have no idea what he’s like I’ll borrow a line from my previous review: “He performs with a boisterous voice and dominating presence that has the outrage of Lewis Black combined with methodical ranting of Andy Rooney.”
Where Daisey has stepped up his game in American Utopias is in the stagecraft — without revealing too much, expect a show with some minor flourishes beyond simple dialogue delivery. The ending moment is absolutely engaging and makes me want to stand outside the theatre at 10:25pm every night of the run to see the reactions from other audiences. The show is also a bit more hefty in the time department, clocking in at an intermission-less two and a half hours. Daisey has a lot to say but he’s entertaining enough that you won’t realize how much time has gone by.
Through the retelling of his “first-hand” experiences going to Orlando, Black Rock Desert, and Zucotti Park, Daisey manages to once again make us laugh but leaves us thinking at the same time. You will be left wanting to google Walt Disney’s past and learn more about the craziness that is Burning Man. In classic Daisey-style he plants the seed of an idea through his storytelling, the crafting of which he has truly become the master.
American Utopias performs now through April 21st, 2013 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, located at 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC 20004. Closest Metro stop: Archive/Navy Memorial (Yellow/Green lines). For more information call 202-393-3939.