Mike Daisey has no objection, in principle, to “altering my consciousness with drugs or narrative,” he tells us early in American Utopias, his sort-of-new monologue about physical places where dreams are made manifest. One distortion of lived experience is as good as another, we might infer; you just hope for a good trip. Anyway, it’s our consciousness Daisey wants to expand. Merely amusing us comes too easily to him, and that alone could never be enough.
You can feel American Utopias striving mightily to be more than it currently is, even though What It Is is quite good. A picaresque triptych of Daisey’s travels to the weeklong desert art bachannal Burning Man, to Disney World, and to the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street protest in Zuccotti Park, the show sometimes feels like a happy return to tangent-following form after the controversial tale-teller’s bruising detour into advocacy. It would be worth seeing even if all it did was remind us how funny Daisey is. You can’t fake funny.
Daisey has been on a creative tear, premiering nine new monologues at the Public Theatre in New York City since last fall. But his last two extended stays in D.C. were to perform two different versions of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, an unforgettable— and compromised—piece of muckraking art, the merits and demerits of which have been catalogued exhaustively. It’s inevitable, and probably fair, that what Daisey says onstage now and perhaps for the rest of his career will be subjected to greater scrutiny than what other performers of his ilk face. Only there are no performers of Daisey’s ilk, may Spalding Gray rest in peace. Henry Rollins, maybe?
“Birthed” in a one-off performance at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company last October, American Utopias has toured to Boston, Chicago, Seattle, and elsewhere before returning for a full run. Daisey’s long, discursive monologues manage to feel both spontaneous and as meticulously plotted as hedge mazes. He neither scripts nor intentionally memorizes them, instead using a skeletal, handwritten outline on the desk in front of him to spin an at least potentially unique version of the story each night. As is his custom, that desk is otherwise empty save for a palm-sized digital recorder and a glass of water. In two performances of the 140-minutes-sans-intermission American Utopias last week—it is too long, yes—I never saw Daisey drink a drop. Eat your heart out, Marco Rubio.
The show did grow more cohesive and assured during the four-day interval between pay-what-you-can preview and opening night, though a flaw—hardly fatal, but more than trivial—remains: American Utopias’ Occupy-occupied third, the part that carries its political payload, is simply less involving than the other two.
Well, duh. It’s no surprise that Daisey’s take on the Occupy movement is less fun than listening to him wrestle with his “philosophical aversion to camping” to explore the “Dionysian-Apollonian tension” that courses through Burning Man. Or better still, hearing him recount a weeklong invasion of the Magic Kingdom as part of a 13-member, adults-only group commanded by his taskmaster cousin Chris. “The ambient aura of child abuse is everywhere,” he broods, describing fidgety, vacant-eyed tykes whose pleasure centers have burnt out from overuse. Mickey Mouse’s weird, puffy white gloves become “pedophile hands.” And the expired, “hovercar-y” vision of the future proffered by EPCOT Center now seems as baffling as the log-flume ride intended to promote the virtues of Norway. This stuff is all great.
That the Occupy piece is a comparative drag isn’t, or isn’t only, because Disney World is fun to riff on, and a protest movement inspired by the economic rape of our country by a small cadre of greedy investors is not. It’s because first person is inherently more powerful than third person. Daisey went to Burning Man. Daisey went to Disney World. His Occupy material is largely secondhand. He doesn’t try to conceal this fact—he made that mistake before, at great cost—but he hasn’t yet found a way around it. Daisey did go to Zuccotti Park for the one-year anniversary of the start of the protest, but the spirit of Occupy had traveled elsewhere by then, as sharks and movements must.
“Nothing dangerous can ever happen in the theater,” he muses midway through the long evening. “And that is why they let us meet here.” That intimation of danger clearly means a lot to Daisey, and he does his damndest to give the piece a rabble-rousing denouement. But I preferred the quieter, more personal epiphany of his Disney story, which was simply his discovery, in his late thirties, that the rest of his family is actually as weird as he is.
Vanitas Devised by Happenstance Theater At Round House Silver Spring to April 14
One of several local theater troupes to graduate from Capital Fringe Festival mainstay to year-round independent operator, Happenstance Theater has earned a reputation for physical meticulousness. Where the Folger and Shakespeare theaters look for contemporary resonance in centuries-old texts, Happenstance—the brainchild of the company’s two chief performers, Sabrina Mandell and Mark Jaster, a Marcel Marceau–trained mime—channels the opposite impulse, seeking to create a stage world utterly sealed off from the one we know. Filed jointly, Jaster and Mandell are the Wes Anderson of D.C. theater.
Working with various confederates, they’ve made this peculiar ethos manifest in several imaginative, episodic pieces equally suited to the couple’s morbid humor and their severe physical technique. Their Victorian-set, Edward Gorey–inspired Cabaret Macabre series has become a reliable autumn delight.
Their new show, Vanitas, tries something different. Since I can’t tell you what that is, I must conclude it doesn’t work. This outfit’s intentions are so unique and specific that when they don’t nail them—though they usually do—it’s hard to see what they were attempting. The program says Vanitas was inspired by the existential genre of 17th century Dutch still-life painting from which it takes its title. I’m no scholar of Dutch masters, so any visual references to specific paintings were lost on me.
Still, you don’t need to have toured the Mauritshuis in The Hague to see that Vanitas’ too-few laughs trickle out over too long a period—only 75 minutes, but that’s a long time to feel confused. Cabaret Macabre’s jokes about death have been replaced by pseudo-profundities about the ephemerality of life and the unknowability of the universe. Jaster’s fool character presents Mandell’s queen with a telescope, singing the refrain, “Heavenly objects in the mirror/Are closer than they appear.” Buckle up, your majesty.
Jaster’s character is named Yorick, and he gets to hold his own skull in his palm this time. Mandell’s queen has a trio of frilly-collared attendants who alternately wait on her and pretend to shoot her with arrows. The program identifies them collectively as “Fates.” As in prior Happenstance shows, musician Karen Hansen offers live accompaniment on a variety of unfamiliar, possibly archaic instruments. No narrative context is required to enjoy the music, or to admire Jaster’s astounding physical dexterity when he reclines to a prone position, then stands back up, while balancing a glass flower pot on his forehead. Those are genuine pleasures, but they’re not enough. Vanitas fails honorably, and in inimitable style.