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Writer-actor Mike Daisey takes Apple to task in solo show at Berkeley Rep

San Jose Mercury News

By Bruce Newman

In the history of Silicon Valley, only one person has completely revolutionized the personal computer as both an instrument of technology and an object of desire even once. Steve Jobs has done it three times.

He is the subject of at least 19 books, has been on countless -- mostly worshipful -- magazine covers and, judging by Apple's carpet-bomb ad campaign of the moment, Jobs has even reinvented the Beatles. Now he appears to have inspired a completely new art form: investigative theater.

With the opening tonight of Berkeley Rep's "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," the creator of the Apple II, the Mac, and the iPhone becomes the subject of a live one-man show. Mixing a lacerating critique of Apple's business practices with a goony geek love for the products the company creates, Mike Daisey delivers a nearly two-hour monologue in which he seems to be speaking to Jobs through the show's audience.

Daisey's scathing takedown of Jobs as "another baby boomer who sold out all his ideals for trash" could eventually reverberate all the way to Broadway, where the show is rumored to be headed after its run in Berkeley. But his initial target is Apple's Cupertino headquarters, where "Macolytes" and the "Apple faithful" -- both terms of religion -- form a cult of personality around the user-friendly CEO.

In many ways, Jobs serves as a metaphor for what Daisey sees as the sins of the consumer electronics industry, but his recent departure confronted the monologist with an "Agony" far more real than he expected.

Jobs' announcement Monday that he was taking a medical leave from the company -- his third since a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2004 -- suddenly "changes the context" of a show in which he is the absentee star. "I think it changes the circumstances in which the monologue may be viewed more than it actually changes the monologue itself," Daisey said. Early workshop versions of the show had not mentioned Jobs' precarious health situation, but Daisey said he would likely be forced to make a brief reference to it. "That's what I'm wrestling with now," he said Monday.

The news of Jobs' health problems raised obvious questions about the timing of a show in which he is both praised and vilified. But after the announcement, people familiar with material in the show said there was nothing to worry about. Or change.

"Nothing that is happening, or could happen, to Steve Jobs would invalidate what Mike is doing in the piece," said Oskar Eustis, artistic director of the Public Theater in New York, where Daisey's monologues are a staple of the repertory. "Nobody is doing this kind of work with the degree of intellectual depth and profundity that Mike is doing it. He's like the love child of Anna Deavere Smith and Spalding Gray."

Vital stage voice

Like Gray, he sits at a table and speaks in his own voice; like Smith, his style is reportorial, not self-absorbed. Daisey believes the willful ignorance of consumers who fawn over their iPads but know little about the brutal conditions under which they are manufactured is indicative of a kind of "psychosis" in the culture.

"It's not natural to have all these devices," he said in an interview before the complication of Jobs' illness arose, "and never think about where they come from."

Apple partisans might well ask, "Who is this guy?" And, in fact, several declined to comment on Daisey's show because they had no idea what's in it, or who he is. An Apple spokesman didn't respond to e-mails seeking comment. But Eustis insisted that in the world of live theater, Daisey's is a voice that is taken very seriously.

"Mike is the best and most important of the next generation of monologists after Spalding," Eustis said in a phone interview.

With its sleek design style and irresistible line of gadgets, Apple is known throughout the world as Silicon Valley's wonder factory. But the only things actually produced here are ideas; the factory where most of those ideas are turned into small miracles is in Shenzhen, China.

If the show is at least partly an indictment of Jobs and Apple for offshoring its labor, the critique did not come easily for Daisey. "I'm a huge Apple partisan," he said, "and I've been deeply obsessed with Steve Jobs my entire adult life."

Often after performances, Daisey relaxes by field-stripping his MacBook Pro -- taking the laptop apart and reassembling its 43 component pieces like a soldier cleaning his M-16. "I find that very soothing," he said.

Terrible conditions

When Daisey realized last year that he had no idea how the gadgets he loved were made, he traveled to Shenzhen during a month in which six workers at Foxconn -- Apple's primary manufacturing contractor -- committed suicide.

"While I was there, people were throwing themselves off the Foxconn building every other day," Daisey recalled. Faced with a rare instance of labor unrest, Foxconn raised the workers' wages by as much as 30 percent, although for most this amounted to the equivalent of pennies a day. Rather than dramatically improving working conditions, the company's approach to reducing the suicide rate was to suspend nets on outdoor staircases.

Nearly half a million workers report every day to Foxconn's walled campus, known as "iPod City," where 52 percent of the world's electronics are manufactured. Jobs later acknowledged the deaths were "very troubling," but insisted Apple inspects its suppliers' factories to make sure they aren't mistreating workers. Apple, he said, is "not a sweatshop."

When Daisey arrived in Shenzhen, he and a translator waited outside the factory gates to see if workers would talk about conditions inside. He said many journalist friends warned him this would be a fruitless exercise. Instead, people lined up to talk, many of them workers who were as young as 12 years old, he said.

"If we want to see the face of the future, it's not Orwell's boot stepping on a face," Daisey said. "It is the face of corporations run without limits. We exported the jobs without exporting any of our values." That damning judgment of Apple and Jobs is a recurring theme in his performance.

"If you control the interface through which we see the world, then you control the world itself," Daisey said. "That leads to a crazy hubris. We start to believe that we know everything, that the limits of the network define the limits of reality."

In "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," Daisey asserts that it's cowardice, not cost containment, that prevents the tech industry from insisting its offshore contractors impose more equitable labor conditions. "It just requires people to give a damn," he said. "These devices are amazing. That's why we love them. But I am tired of us being children about how we get them."