|"A piece of shit, wonderfully executed."|
You can't help but admire Mike Daisey when you're watching him - even when, as was the case this New Year's Eve in Boston, he has nothing coherent to say, and has tied up his performance in a narrative knot (and knows it).
Or should I say that's especially when you can't help but admire him? For it's precisely at such times (i.e., when he's spinning his wheels) that Daisey's technique is at its most obvious, and also its most impeccable: when his voice is soaring into a carefully punctuated bellow, then swooping into a whisper for no apparent reason - that's when you ooh and aah internally over his physical control. When the arms are at one moment swinging like mallets, then the next, slipping through the air as sinuously as an odalisque's - it's only then that you realize this sumo-sized guy, whose eyes glitter with madness, and who is forever beading out in sweat because he's so aquiver with indignation, is actually enacting a kind of self-conscious ballet for your benefit; with utter focus and relentless discipline, he is sculpting an evanescent (indeed invisible) dramatic sculpture - a virtual persona - for your contemplation and edification.
And the fact that whatever he's doing, it counts as a still life, is intrinsic to the weird pull of his theatrical presence. Daisey's affect is all outrage unleashed, and yet he's absolutely and completely tethered, rooted to the spot behind the bland table that serves as pedestal for his notes. And around him there is no set, no context, nothing - indeed, at the Huntington here in Boston, the fact that the beginnings of the set for God of Carnage were in place behind him led to a ten-minute diatribe about that particular play ("A piece of SHIT, but wonderfully executed!"). Daisey was clearly unsettled by the presence of a theatrical frame - perhaps because he's aware that his caged rage operates best in a vacuum; it can't, and shouldn't, get any dramatic traction; the "fourth wall" must be sealed around him like shrink wrap, so that he floats before us like a bitter genie pickled in his own rhetorical bottle.
This is what makes so many folks giggle at his expectorations; Daisey's harangues, though precisely targeted, and delivered with Old-Testament-level authority, are nevertheless so clearly helpless that their intensity tickles us, the same way that the doomed monomania of a cartoon character does. Only beneath this superficial response, I think there lurks a somewhat deeper resonance: the impotence of Daisey's anger maps to a new sense of social incapacitation in the zeitgeist. For there's no shared culture anymore to channel the fury of a funny scold like him; Daisey's wicked riffs can't land, can't have any effect on their targets. Like the guy left hanging by tech support, and the smartphone user who can't access an app, Daisey is dangling, cut off by the grid from personal efficacy. And politically, things may be even worse; he can scream shame on any number of social and cultural miscreants all he wants, but shame no longer exists. Hence the essential stasis of his show. And the sense that within our lubricated social shells, we're much like him.
I admit that all this came to mind, however, because the text of his Boston show, "When the Clock Strikes" - a loose meditation on the general lousiness of New Year's Eve - was intermittently amusing, but so meandering as to have been almost maddening (if I'd been paying close attention to it, that is). It was, I suppose, a tour of sorts of his psyche, as Daisey tilted at his usual windmills - capitalism is sucking/has sucked your soul, but you are a hopeless hypocrite anyway (just like me!), and then this other WEIRD thing happened, did I tell you about my wife and the Nazi - oh maybe not, but you're a puritan anyway (or are you a marauding drunk?), which is funny because right now I am basically jerking off into your mouth. Har-de-har. I think he repeated that last bon mot twice - which really made me think the show should have been titled "A Taste of Mike Daisey."
There were certainly some punchy moments in this psychological mystery tour, but a mood of showbizzy hypocrisy pervaded it, too - Daisey's such a knowing observer of snobbery that the precision of his satire betrays an unspoken allegiance to its targets; after punching down Yasmina Reza, for instance, he sighed that "all pop culture and literature" is now about a handful of neighborhoods in Brooklyn. Somehow I missed that - but then I'm an alcoholic puritan, right? (At least I don't live in Connecticut, though!)
Oh, well, as I said, it was the performance that made the show - Daisey admitted as much himself, quipping that, like Yasmina Reza, he might well be presenting "a piece of shit, but wonderfully executed." (Just as he likewise shouted that he was a hypocrite - you often sense in Daisey the nervous desire to pre-empt any and all critique.) At any rate, if you'd like to check the performance out for yourself, you can - Daisey has posted the audio on his website. I think even from an MP3 you can appreciate the hypnotic, almost-musical cadence of his delivery - and perceive that with better material, he could put on quite a show. I've been hoping for some time that a local presenter (like ArtsEmerson, hint hint) might bring his monologue on Steve Jobs to Boston - if any town needs to see that, it's this one; and "When the Clock Strikes," if it did nothing else, made me hunger for that opportunity all the more.