BWW Reviews: Mike Daisey Returns to Woolly Mammoth with AMERICAN UTOPIAS

By: Apr. 03, 2013

More than a few years back, I remember stepping into Woolly Mammoth to witness a monologue like I've never seen before. The show? Mike Daisey's If You See Something, Say Something. I remember being hugely impressed with not only the structure of his monologue, his unforced wit, and his seemingly extemporaneous manner of speaking about complex issues, but also the fact that he dared to create a monologue focused in part on, of all things, the dawn of the American atomic age. As he's returned to Woolly, I too have returned to witness his often biting commentary on issues and events of American, if not global, importance.

Those that venture to Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company this month can witness yet another one of his creations, American Utopias. As is standard, his wife Jean-Michele Gregory directs this piece and he sits behind a table featuring a glass of water and a written outline on yellow paper. Yet there are also a few additional elements not usually seen in Daisey's presentations. A prop hangs from the ceiling at one point during the proceedings, a sound effect is used, and the duo even leverages video projections. A third element - not to be spoiled here - reinforces the notion that Daisey views the everyday world has his source material and his stage. There's no fantasy here yet it's astoundingly theatrical.

In the monologue, Daisey considers three venues where idealistic Americans seek to create an alternative reality and offers biting, socially conscious commentary on what they 'say' about American values, people and the bonds they form with others, and the uniquely American experience of striving for 'what's seemingly good'. We have Disney World, the Burning Man festival in Nevada, and - interestingly enough, Occupy Wall Street's brief 'home' in Lower Manhattan's Zuccotti Park in 2011.

Daisey made his own trek to Disney and Burning Man, which informed the development of his monologue, but relies on an interview, video footage, and a brief visit to the Zuccotti Park area following the demonstration that the New York Police Department eventually cut short to fill out his description of that event. It's no surprise that the former two discussions offer more descriptive details and a personalized touch, but it's important to note that the third does have some modicum of a relationship to his other three stories. As such, it's not entirely out of place.

That being said, it's plausible to suggest that each of the discussions of each of the venues could be the focus of individual monologues. True, there's an overarching theme at play - and I commend him for having one - but at times I felt like I wished I could hear more about his thoughts on one thing or another (from corporatism at Disney to the rationale for people participating in events like Burning Man) and less about some other things (for example, social activism as it pertains to Occupy Wall Street). He makes the most of his self-admittedly long time on stage and does amazingly well to weave all of the elements together, but at times I wondered if a more streamlined approach to treating some of the issues might have resulted in a further focused presentation.

Likewise, although one clearly has to admire Mr. Daisey's intellectual curiosity, penchant for vivid descriptions, and seemingly fearless desire to experience everything (even the things he initially found uncomfortable such as Burning Man), one might say that he can veer towards being a bit too self-important and self-indulgent. While these qualities are somewhat necessary to make a successful career out of being a monologist - all alone on a stage with only words to rely on - this particular monologue highlights those qualities in a way that's more prevalent than some of his previous monologues. Particularly when focusing on the power of social activism in the later moments of his piece - which again won't be fully described here - he becomes a bit like a fire and brimstone preacher seemingly unwilling to accept or ponder potential alternative viewpoints.

Nonetheless, despite these quibbles, I will say there's nothing like seeing Daisey do what he does best. Few other men sitting behind a table can leave an audience mostly, if not completely, riveted.

Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes with no intermission.

American Utopias plays through April 21, 2013 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company - 641 D Street, NW in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at 202-393-3939 or purchase them online.

Photo Credit: Ursa Waz

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