Daisey on Disney: A ride worth taking


Mike Daisey in “American Utopias,” which runs through April 21 at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. (Ursa Waz)

That dependably major meteorological event, Hurricane Daisey, has swept back into Washington. As with past storms of this variety, the latest one seeks to shake an institution to its foundation and rattle the complacency of the natives.

The organization laid siege to is the World we call Disney, and the gale-force disturbance is the Daisey who goes by Mike. In the enjoyably withering new monologue he’s brought to Woolly Mammoth Theatre, “American Utopias,” Daisey by turns marvels over and sticks his lethal tongue out at the mundane rites observed in the imagineered juvenile regalia of the Magic Kingdom.

Because a Daisey entertainment always ventures into crosscurrents, this one — directed as is customary by his wife, Jean-Michele Gregory — takes us on a transcontinental sail, tacking back to theme-park-y Orlando after visits to Daisey’s other destination points for the occasion: the Burning Man art festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, and Occupy Wall Street’s erstwhile encampment in Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park.

The linkage Daisey establishes — in the notion of the various ways in which Americans gather to revel in, reinvent or resist the nation’s dominant culture, of the corporation — is most convincing when the prism he uses is his own suffering. This occurs in the dusty, sweltering expanse of Burning Man, where he sees towering pieces of mobile art and hears couples having sex in adjacent tents. And also in the oppressive manufactured enchantments of Disney World, where in the wake of a cousin on a Snow White high he endures the unendurable: five “Character Breakfasts.”

Less persuasively integrated are his musings on Occupy Wall Street, possibly because his perspective on the movement is formed at a distance. He seems not to have spent a night himself in Zuccotti Park. In view of his alive and wildly funny accounts of his immersive experiences on the Nevada playa and on the Florida concrete, the passages of this two-hour, 15-minute show devoted to the Occupiers feel observationally anemic. And the outrage he reports that he expressed on a Bloomberg television interview show, on the day Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg ordered police to clear the squatters, distracts rather than illuminates. It comes across as self-serving.

You will no doubt recall that Daisey’s last visit to Woolly in July was slathered in the muck of controversy. Forced to acknowledge that portions of his superb “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” were not the brutal events that he claimed to have witnessed, Daisey was subjected to censure by journalists and other theatergoers. They felt duped and angered by the damage to the credibility of charges Daisey illuminated in “Steve Jobs,” that Chinese workers are treated horribly in factories making Apple iPhones and iPads.

The vituperation over Daisey continues on social media, where, although he’s apologized repeatedly for his looseness with the facts in “Steve Jobs,” he remains a tough and vigilant critic of the practices of the news media. I try to stay mad at him — my early reviews of “Steve Jobs” heralded it as some of the best theater I’d seen that year. But I can’t. Talent, I guess, will out. I’m drawn, as I gather many others still are, to the combination of ego, intelligence, poetic skill and rigorous self-examination that spills out from behind the wooden desk that has become his pulpit.

A few shockingly theatrical devices are used in “American Utopias.” Well, shocking for Daisey, whose sum total of movement in previous shows involved plopping himself center stage, turning the sheets of paper that contain his notes, and dabbing sweat from his brow. This time, projections have been added and — dear Lord! — a bona-fide, three-dimensional prop makes an entrance. (To learn of the even more dramatic departure in this production, you’ll have to buy a ticket.)

It’s as if Daisey were answering those who might not think of a guy simply nattering on for a couple of hours as “theater.” He is right to beg to differ. What fills the hall is Daisey’s brash persona and pinpoint insights — performance art for sure — and the laughter that ensues. A crank, it turns out, is the ideal interpreter for those immune to theme-park charms. As if he were a secret anthropologist, he tags along behind his enthusiastic cousin and other family members, sampling ghastly drinks at an exhibit called “Sodas of the World,” visiting Epcot’s unrepresentative assortment of national pavilions, and studying Walt Disney’s unrealized plan for a vast, corporate-controlled city of the future.

He finds funny contrasts and connections between Disney World’s manicured optimism and the loony, nonconformist spirit of the Burning Man city in the desert. And from these, he segues to what he views as the most promising city of them all, the one that the occupiers stake their claim to, in a privately owned park Daisey sees as an emblem of the stranglehold corporate interests maintain over public spaces, and by extension, the public consciousness.

As he did in “The Last Cargo Cult,” the solo show about the global worship of money that he brought to Woolly in 2010, Daisey makes of “American Utopias” a travelogue that wittily locates what’s strange in the familiar, and what’s recognizable about the exotic. Any tour of locales near or far he decides to lead, sign me up.

American Utopias

created and performed by Mike Daisey. Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory. Set and lighting, Klyph Stanford; dramaturg, Miriam Weisfeld. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through April 21 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW.

Visit www.woollymammoth.net

or call 202-393-3939.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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