1 man, 3 places — Daisey punctuates enthralling ‘Utopias’ with theatrical flourish

Chicago Sun-Times

By Hedy Weiss

“I am a creature of theater,” proclaimed Mike Daisey, as he stood beneath the giant rotating “MOTHERS” sign that currently dominates the plaza in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

No one would argue with him on that point. He is a remarkable, hugely seductive storyteller. But the truth is, well before Daisey, coatless on a chilly evening, marched up the aisle and out the door of the MCA Theater to deliver a meta-theatrical epilogue to “American Utopias,” his enthralling (if somewhat overly long) one-man show, we already knew precisely what a supremely theatrical being he was.

The epilogue, however, was designed to drive things one step further — to demonstrate how “an audience” (interested, but tame and somewhat passive in its seats) could easily be transformed into “a gathering” (still interested, but perhaps slightly less passive, and maybe, at least in Daisey’s best fantasies, potentially political). Dream baby, dream. The truth is, Daisey’s power to poke and provoke was at its best before the grand gesture.

And here is one of the most striking things about this intriguingly structured two-hour show that takes the form of a triptych of tales (each of which is unspooled from three different vantage points): In talking about his visits to Burning Man (the weeklong annual ritualistic “counter-culture” festival in northern Nevada’s Black Rock Desert), to Disney World in Orlando, Fla., and to New York’s Zuccotti Park (site of the Occupy Wall Street encampment), Daisey never once uses the word “utopia.” Yet true to the tradition of all such American ventures, each of these places turns out to be a strange combination of heaven and hell.

Each of the places Daisey visits is its own very particular sort of theatrical endeavor.

Burning Man, which Daisey visits with his wife (who also is his director, Jean-Michele Gregory), is a bizarre camping festival that is part sex, drugs and communal living experiment, which all goes up in smoke in a grand finale bonfire. Daisey describes it with incomparable comic verve. (He might also want to visit Valencia, Spain, where a far older, urban and more religious version of this thing is staged annually.)

Daisey travels to Disney World with 19 members of his extended family, all of whom are obsessed with the place. On the evidence of my single, very brief visit to the place I can say the only thing he left out is the overwhelming smell of mildew. But his ability to capture the Kremlin-like aspects of the park — what he describes as a “bubble universe” full of masterfully “forced perspective” buildings, where there is an abiding sense of being frozen in time — is priceless.

And then there is Zuccotti Park, the “public-private” real estate anomaly where the country’s financial meltdown triggered a leaderless, quasi-1960s protest and “occupation” that went nowhere, but was eventually shut down by New York’s Mayor Bloomberg. Daisey stretches his point in the way he references an occurrence at the Hong Kong parade vigil memorializing the 1989 Tiananmen Square events. And blaming the New York cops (who surely he would have championed this past week after Hurricane Sandy) is far too easy. (He also forgets about the Starbucks clerks who ended up having to scrub the toilets used by the crowds of occupiers. Political theater can sometimes mean drudgery for the “backstage crew.”)

One final note: I arrived at Daisey’s show still thinking about his last piece, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which generated huge controversy when it was revealed that much of what he had represented as reportage about the conditions at Apple’s factory in China had in fact been fictionalized. But I left thinking: Why be a journalist if you can spin stories like those in “American Utopias”?