At Fringe Festival, a Finely Tuned Fury

07.14.08
Mike Daisey
The Washington Post

The art of the one-person show is in disguising a self-centered act as something generous: The performer must convince us utterly that he's in it more for our pleasure than his own. The beguiling monologuist Mike Daisey achieves this in grand style with his new solo piece about the withering of American idealism in the Age of Terror, "If You See Something, Say Something."

As one of the opening acts of this summer's Capital Fringe Festival -- the third installment of Washington's annual theatrical midway of the weird, the profound, the silly and, sometimes, the ghastly -- Daisey gets things off to a funny, provocative, meticulously embroidered start. His show is, at two hours, a bit long for the Fringe and at $20 per seat, five bucks pricier than virtually all other festival offerings. (It's at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, rather than at one of 11 official Fringe venues, which range from the Warehouse off Mount Vernon Square to Chief Ike's Mambo Room in Adams Morgan.)

Still, what this master story-spinner produces is pure value, in streams of finely etched argument. Seated at a table, with a dark cloth to wipe his brow, a stack of handwritten sheets from a legal pad and a glass of water from which he never takes a sip, Daisey guides us through a tale of paranoia, politics and paradox. It's the story of a decades-long national obsession with feeling safe that culminates in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, which he describes as "the largest expansion of federal power in 60 years."

The touchstone for this detailed, episodic, even poetic excursion is the 35-ish Daisey's own childhood fascination with the atomic bomb, a preoccupation that leads him to Los Alamos, N.M., and a pilgrimage to the site of the first bomb test, which occurred on July 16, 1945, on a remote military base. Once a year, he tells us, the installation's gates are opened and the public is invited to drive in to view Ground Zero -- an event that gives Daisey material for dark, humorous and intense musings about the peculiar culture of a locality he labels "the deadliest place on Earth."

You get to know a person surprisingly well over the course of 120 minutes. Your antennae probe the ether for fakery, for indications of someone who just likes to hear himself talk. Daisey, though, exudes authenticity. His voice is easy to listen to, and the intermittent, acid-tipped expressions of indignation -- over the absurdity of some of the government's responses to terrorism, at the chinks being widened in our national character -- rise with a crusader's sense of injustice.

"I'm a subversive person. I'm a bad person. I am a person of interest," Daisey declares, and on this last point, certainly, no one is going to contradict him.