Friday, November 14, 2008

If You See Something, Say Something

Photo/Kenneth Aaron

Forget the superficial description of Mike Daisey--Spalding Grey meets Chris Farley says so little--and don't worry about whether or not If You See Something, Say Something, his latest monologue, is worth seeing: it is. If you like storytelling, and you must if you like theater, then it hardly matters how Daisey acts or what he talks about, so long as he remains charismatic, vivacious, and funny: he does.

You go to see this sort of perfomer, a sit-down comic with considerably more gravitas (and sure enough, they're making a movie), because he has an ability to say what's on your mind, often in a way that is far cleverer and certainly funnier than you yourself would put it. But that's only half the picture, the cultural magnet part that describes a junk shop in New Mexico as Mad Max meets Brazil. The far more engaging half is the indignant Daisey, offended on your behalf, at the museum that announces, to a soundtrack that is Shaft meets electronica, that "Native Americans were happy to give us their land." The Daisey who is horrified by the way we unabashedly claim that saving one million hypothetical American lives in the Pacific was worth more than 200,000 Japanese women and children, and then go about erasing the actual deaths, turning our nation's nuclear history into a bloodless affair. As he puts it, smiling ever so slightly and then going back to a straightface that belies his depth, "We like to think of ourselves as the good guys."

The only complaint about If You See Something, Say Something is a moot one: the monologue may be artificially constructed, but it's performed to perfection. Daisey knows that his work is strongest when he speaks from personal experience; his description of a Seattle garage theater production of The Balcony (in How Theater Failed America) is an indelible moment. It's hardly wrong for the man, then, to go out into the world, all Michael Moore-like, in search of an experience that he can plug into the research he's done. Given that, his monologue consists not just of things that he's experienced (security theater at the airport) but things that he's subjected himself to (going to the Trinity test site). It is rounded out both by his research (the moral feud over atomic weapons between Sam Cohen and Herman Kahn, delivered in a fashion that the History Channel would do well to note) and by what most likely triggered this monologue, his strongest moments on stage: what he's disgusted by (Homeland Security, and its Skeletor-looking Michael Chertoff).

If You See Something, Say Something is a political play in the first-person, a unique trait that allows it to be socially responsible on a collective scale. It is first-rate theater, too--a direct story, with no mixed messages, that reminds us all of the very power we have to say something.

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