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Theater Review: “American Utopias” at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Monologuist Mike Daisey returns to Washington with a show about heavens on earth.
When it comes to skewering hapless souls blindly going about their business, there’s really nobody who does it better than Mike Daisey. In his new show, American Utopias, currently playing at Woolly Mammoth, the bellicose monologuist turns to the ripe fodder of Burning Man and Disney World; the first with its quasi-autonomous hippies ingesting hallucinogens in the desert, and the second with its scores of manic children ingesting sugar in the swamplands of Orlando. When Daisey describes the “sexy tramps,” his campmates at Burning Man who look like “extras from the last two bad Matrix movies,” or the princesses being corralled with Goofy-branded tasers, fairy corpses dangling from their mouths, it’s hard not to laugh until your teeth hurt.
American Utopias is almost endlessly entertaining, but what makes it problematic is when Daisey’s schtick crosses the line from gentle jabbing to full-on polemicism. It feels burdensome to bring up (yet again) the scandal that engulfed his show The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs last year (when an episode of This American Life featuring his monologue was retracted after parts of it were revealed to have been embellished)—but it’s impossible not to when Daisey insists on crowning himself as America’s conscience. He’s a brilliant storyteller, a sharply original theatrical talent, and a fiercely clever thinker. But none of that seems to be enough. In American Utopias he’s part social reformer, part human guinea pig, and part cult leader, and the way he forces the audience to be complicit in his activism can be uncomfortable, to say the least.
Originally designed as a two-part monologue about the wretched excess of Disney World and Burning Man, American Utopias was retooled somewhat when the Occupy movement was born. The Zuccotti Park occupation, which Daisey never actually witnessed firsthand, is the weakest part of the work by far—the narrator abandons humor for the most part and focuses instead on what he sees as the egregious and unconstitutional actions of Mayor Bloomberg and the city’s cops in evicting protestors in the dead of night, under the shelter of a media blackout and a no-fly zone. Daisey describes talking to a kid he met who began screaming in agony after his hands were hog-tied for hours, and a cop who shrugged off his own role by saying the rich Wall Street bankers who worked nearby needed to be kept safe. It all comes off nicely pat, and feels too outraged a narrative for someone who never got closer to Occupy Wall Street than the time he pondered ordering the protesters a pizza.
Daisey’s framing of Burning Man and Disney World as utopian communities thriving within their own unique landscapes is interesting, but it isn’t particularly original. The latter in particular has been pondered in detail by everyone from Umberto Eco to Jean Baudrillard, who also wrote a whole chapter on “Utopia Achieved” in his 1986 book, America, and described Disneyland as “a paradise … mournful, monotonous, and superficial though it may be.” Nevertheless, Daisey’s narrative, in which slightly psychotic adults and hopped-up kids suffering through horrendous serotonin depletion eat breakfast while surrounded by giant, grotesque mascots (inside which are graduates of the Yale School of Drama), is nothing short of hysterical.
Also funny: the bizarre environment of Burning Man, in which everything is free, the heat is constant and searing, giant pink Lycra cubes appear out of nowhere and roll toward the coffee tent at 6:11 AM, and Daisey and his wife (and co-director) Jean-Michele Gregory console themselves by agreeing that if things get too weird, they’ll get into their cars and flee. But even this section feels troublesome—Daisey talks openly about the trippiness of it all but doesn’t disclose his own state of sobriety or otherwise, and insists on using the word “titties” repeatedly to refer to breasts, in addition to some far cruder language (this is in no way a family-friendly show).
While Agony and Ecstasy featured blinking fluorescent lights as a backdrop, American Utopias is far easier on the eyes. Daisey sits at his habitual desk in a vortex in the middle of the stage with what look like muddy footprints surrounding him. Shifts in lighting signify his switch from one location to another (Burning Man is set up in ambers and deep reds, while Zuccotti Park is brighter). At one point, a prop appears as if from nowhere, and the show incorporates some effective and uncomfortable video footage from the Zuccotti Park raid, which Daisey says he downloaded via the file-sharing website BitTorrent (you can find a teaser for it quite easily through Google on Salon.com).
Despite the refreshing multimedia elements, the Occupy section drags on and on, and Daisey jokes himself that the show will be criticized for its length (it’s around two hours and 15 minutes with no intermission). There’s a surprise at the end that I won’t spoil, but suffice it to say it adds more fuel to the fire upon which Daisey self-immolates as our national moral compass. Does he necessarily deserve that honor? As Depeche Mode might say, it all depends on your own personal Jesus.
American Utopias is at Woolly Mammoth through April 21. Running time is about two hours and 15 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($35 to $67.50) are available via Woolly’s website.
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