Mike Daisey's spellbinding "Monopoly"

01.23.08
Mike Daisey
The Seattle Times

A single narrative well-wrought and well-told can be fully satisfying.

But in his spellbinding monologue "Monopoly!," Mike Daisey counterpoints several stories. Stories about the quixotic genius inventor, Nikola Tesla. And the Redmond-based software giant Microsoft. And the invention of America's favorite board game. And a working-class clan in Maine.

Layering outrage, official and underground history, personal memoir and rollicking humor, Daisey makes you think, feel and question in this show at Capitol Hill Arts Center.

And yes, he makes you laugh — hearty laughter, cathartic and barbed.

Now based in New York and touring nationally, Daisey honed his craft in Seattle in the 1990s. His affection for this city, and skepticism about its digital-age businesses, is evident in his two shows at CHAC this visit: "Monopoly!" (through Feb. 3) and "How Theater Failed America" (Feb. 8-10).

In "Monopoly!," Daisey's hilarious commentary on Microsoft's elaborate MS Word updates and his priceless mimicry of Bill Gates trying to "act" in a promotion film draw howls here.

But Daisey and his director Jean-Michele Gregory (also Daisey's spouse) employ such quick-sketch parody judiciously, within a larger exploration of individual aspiration versus corporatization.

Daisey plugs us into the eccentric brilliance of Tesla and his battles with domineering fellow inventor Thomas Edison. He also celebrates one Elizabeth Magie, who invented a prototype of the game Monopoly — but received neither riches nor credit for it.

Daisey's clearly partial to the "little guy" oppressed by market-place behemoths. But the case he makes is not facile, nor is his world view simplistic. "Monopoly!" also conjures his sister toiling at below minimum wage, his hard-working mother and the very mixed blessing of a Wal-Mart store in a dying New England town.
And Daisey's capacious sense of wonder and curiosity are ubiquitous and infectious here. He details the basic principles of electricity without boring you silly. And he gets you worrying about the technical challenges of his quest to use a dangerous "Tesla Coil" in a theater piece.

All this wouldn't be as interesting, or as much fun, if Daisey were not a versatile actor who can free-range from character to character.

And "Monopoly!" wouldn't be so meaningful either, if Daisey didn't lay his own soul bare on occasion.
Very much the Gen-Xer, Daisey laces his material with irony and profanity. But he's also worthy of comparison now to a Yankee monologuist of the Boomer generation, Spalding Gray. With "Monopoly!," Daisey moves their quirky and illuminating craft forward, into fascinating new territory.