Mike Daisey's American Utopias | Live review

11.02.12
Mike Daisey
Time Out Chicago

By Kris Vire

Monologist Mike Daisey's latest work, presented jointly by the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Chicago Humanities Festival, starts as many of the masterful storyteller's works do: He spends about 20 minutes a piece on three consecutive subjects that seem tangentially related at best, each chapter punctuated by a pronounced turn of one of the yellow notepad pages that contain his tales' outlines.

In this case, the triple threads are his visit this year to the Burning Man festival with his wife and director, Jean-Michele Gregory; another first-time trek, this time to Disney World with theme-park fanatic members of his extended family; and last fall's Occupy Wall Street movement and its takeover of lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park, which isn't actually a traditional park but instead a "public-private partnership" borne of developers' negotiations for a zoning variance.

The three storylines—with Burning Man's drug-fueled benevolent anarchy, Disney World's clean-lined insistence on being the Happiest Place on Earth and Occupy's dogged determination toward consensus governance in defiance of its Bloombergian corporate surroundings—don't seem at first blush to have much in common aside from Daisey's choosing to tell them together. Seated as usual at a table with a microphone, his yellow notes and a glass of water at hand but rarely employed, the performer remains relatively stationary apart from the modulations of his expressive face, voice and periodic wild gesticulations of his hands.

Daisey's great skill becomes apparent in the ways he subtly begins to weave the threads together as he cycles among them: Burning Man's gift-based economy re-emerges in the "gift" of a question posed to him in a Bloomberg News radio interview; the public-private partnership that is Zuccotti Park circles back around in Walt Disney's original conception of EPCOT Center. The stories remain grounded in the teller's personal, bombastically funny recounting of his own experiences, but they veer closer to poignance as he opens up their connections—each of these quite different events is someone's idea of the ideal.

Daisey never addresses head-on in this piece the biggest disruption of his own public life this year, when public radio host Ira Glass retracted the episode of This American Life adapted from Daisey's show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs after TAL producers determined some of the anecdotes Daisey claimed to have witnessed directly at Foxconn factories in China were fudged. (This American Life also rescinded its invitation for Daisey to perform the Apple show at the Chicago Theatre.)

But a flight of fancy late in American Utopias, in which the performer describes walking through Burning Man with the late Walt Disney himself—after Daisey's taken pains to establish he's stone sober in this moment—might be read as speaking to that controversy, as if to say, "Hey, fuckheads, clearly not everything I'm saying here is literal." Daisey may never win back all of the fans who cringed at l'affaire Jobs. But he remains a voluble and valuable raconteur.