Monday, February 18, 2013

Daisey goes to Disney, and the desert

Cinderella's Castle at Disney World in Florida.
The trouble with Mike Daisey's American Utopias, which opened ArtsEmerson's "The Next Thing" festival on Friday night, is pretty obvious - and ultimately pretty irritating: it never coheres the way his best work does.  Instead it just rambles along, behind Daisey himself, as he checks out Disney World, and Burning Man (the annual hippie-Thunder-Dome bash in the Nevada desert), and then doesn't check out Occupy Wall Street, but feels guilty about ignoring it instead.

And why doesn't the monologue cohere, you may ask?  Well, if you played a quick game of "What Doesn't Belong?" with this script, most people would agree that last year's doomed protest at Zuccotti Park does not belong next to Disney World and Burning Man.  The reasons, again, are obvious: Burning Man and Disney World are both essentially theme parks (even if Burning Man is only a temporary one; their iconography has actually begun to converge, as you can see in the posted photos). True, Disney World is a fantasy about pre-puberty and the suppression of sex, while Burning Man is a fantasy about puberty, and, well, sex.  But beyond that, they're remarkably similar; both are ticketed events ($380 for Burning Man this year!), both lean heavily toward group participation, both peddle "thrills" and "awesomeness," both require tons of planning to visit (and far more to construct!), etc., etc.

Thus Daisey is, amusingly, a fish out of water in both environments; he's childless, so he can't relate to just how many kids there are at Disney; and, well, he's none too comfortable with the nudity and general orgiastic atmosphere at Burning Man, either.  (Daisey at left; dudes at Burning Man, at right - not that they all look quite that good.)

So, properly alienated, Our Narrator casts his usual gimlet eye on the goings-on around him, and both the hyper-competitive, anxious "fun" at Disney and the beach-lizard vibe at Man come in for some well-deserved knocks. But Daisey rarely attempts to synthesize his experiences into anything like a statement (word has it that an earlier version included a "dream sequence" in which Walt Disney wandered through Burning Man; I vote that be restored!).  If he ever gets around to doing so, though, I think Daisey might have the beginnings of a classic on his hands.

Save for one thing. Alas, interlarded with these amusing musings are what amount to a non-starter: his decision to avoid Occupy Wall Street (even though he lives in Brooklyn!).  All Daisey offers for a motive here is that he didn't want to look "dorky."  Really? I hate to break this to you Mike, but . . .  oh, well, never mind!  And honestly, if you can't even bother to take the subway to Zuccotti Park, how do you expect to us take seriously your fulminations against Bloomberg, capitalism, etc., etc.?

The hot men of Burning Man.
Indeed, if Daisey had visited Occupy, I can't imagine he would have tried to triangulate it with Disney and Burning Man; nor, I think, would he have categorized all three as "utopias;" the shock of seeing the grungy, from-the-ground-up attempt at a true utopia that briefly "occupied" Zuccotti Park would have ended any such illusions about EPCOT, Black Rock City, et al.

So what we're left with is an idiosyncratic ramble that frustrates more than it enlightens (although to be fair, it does enlighten a bit).  I have to also mention that as if to add insult to injury, after cheerfully admitting that he dodged any engagement with Occupy, Daisey leads the audience out into the street to conjure some faux political commitment in a move that really set my teeth on edge. As a frequent visitor and supporter of Occupy Boston, this self-aggrandizement only pissed me off, and recalled the sense of egotistical delusion that allowed Daisey to swear repeatedly that he personally saw the labor abuses of Apple and Foxconn in China. (And for the record, his skeptics have already picked apart a few of the claims in American Utopias; so no, he hasn't entirely changed his ways.)

Of course, Mike Daisey is still entertaining, even when he doesn't really have much to say. His fans will be glad to hear that he once again has constructed (under the direction of his wife, Jean-Michele Gregory) an elaborate vocal and emotional roller coaster (which is hardly spontaneous, though, whatever his claims; whenever he pauses, you can see that he simply has hit a glitch in the tape reel running in his head). Daisey thunders and bellows; he whispers, giggles and squeaks; his hands twist and flutter, and enact a thousand dances; he's like some crazed, avenging Buddha, and as ever, the contradictory vision of his enormous energy remaining utterly anchored and still behind his little wooden desk is, for a time, mesmerizing. But as his script runs on and on, that hypnotic atmosphere slowly drains away.  And we're left wondering why this notorious paragon of the theatrical left thinks it's "dorky" to occupy anything other than Disney.

Burning Man 2012 - even the architecture tells you it and Disneyland have begun to converge.

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