Life, examined

Delving deeper with Mike Daisey
By BILL RODRIGUEZ  |  September 26, 2006

OUT AND ABOUT: The Island troupe in mid-frolic.

Solo performer Mike Daisey has been described as a cross between Noam Chomsky and Jack Black, Spalding Gray and Robin Williams and — my favorite — “Jackie Gleason meets Franz Kafka.”

One of the privileges and delights of interviewing and writing about such oversized personalities is having the above sort of fun describing them. I will add “the love child of Chris Farley and Susan Sontag” to that list, but Daisey inspires delving deeper. For example, there’s his restraint in discussing Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard in a four-evening show on megalomaniacs, Great Men of Genius. Daisey doesn’t fume and spray spittle about how the cult bilks the vulnerable and fantasizes about alien soul-inhabitation, though he thoroughly covers all that. Instead, he waxes fascinated about the psychology of gullibility, allowing that Hubbard probably believed much of his nonsense.

Similarly, Daisey didn’t trash when, after working there for nearly two years, he did a monologue and wrote the popular 2002 book 21 Dog Years about the experience, although he did pass along his late-night unanswered e-mail rants to owner Jeff Bezos.

None of this is because he wants you to think of Mike Daisey as a nice guy, but rather because what intrigues him always lies beneath the surface.

So it is with the central subject of Monopoly!, Nicola Tesla, the mad scientist who tried to invent a death ray and grew obsessed with the wireless transmission of electricity and whose boss, Thomas Edison, couldn’t get him to stop insisting that Edison’s direct current (DC) technology was vastly inferior to Tesla’s alternating current (AC), which households use today.

“I’m very interested in the creep of corporate culture,” Daisey said from his home in Brooklyn. “And also very interested in the way corporatization affected [Tesla’s] life. All the deals he made early that worked out were with people, and then later those people were supplanted or shielded by corporations. Then he couldn’t get his letters returned. All those elements of the story really resonate with me.”

Monopoly!, which kicks off this year’s FirstWorksProv multi-media-arts festival, goes into the difficulties that the scientific genius had with the corporate mentalities, weaving that storyline with both the actual and the bogus Milton-Bradley PR version of the Monopoly board game’s origins.

In 1997 he staged his first monologue, Wasting Your Breath, which went into the consequences of the unexpected pregnancy, by him, of his high school girlfriend.

“It was really clear to me when I did the first one that this was the form that I was interested in exploring,” Daisey said. “It was very clear, the way few things have been clear in my life, that I should keep working that way.” By now he has performed nine monologues, about half off-Broadway, with a 10th scheduled to open later this year in New York. They have evolved from autobiographical in content to what might be termed inner-biographical, taking apart questions and subjects that gestate for a couple of years as intellectual obsessions. Earlier this month he debuted Truth in New York, about public frauds such as author James Frey as well as Daisey’s own personal history of deceptions. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about these monologues is that none have been scripted, none are memorized. They are created afresh from an outline, written the day before the first performance, that he refers to, sitting Spalding Gray-style at a table. “As I tell them over time, they tend to adhere to a certain path,” Daisey said. “So in that sense, they stop changing. But it takes a long time for them to actually get to that point. And the majority of the monologues are not even close to that point.”

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