When Mike Daisey recalls a scene from the Burning Man festival in his latest monologue, “American Utopias,” he might as well be describing himself. “There are people,” he says, “who cannot enjoy an experience until they are telling the story to someone else.”
Daisey has made a career out of telling tales. He sits, Spalding Gray-style, at a wooden table, armed only with a stack of legal paper, a glass of water, and a cloth to mop his brow. This particular saga, performed last weekend at the Paramount Center Mainstage as part of ArtsEmerson’s The Next Thing Festival, explores the unique American itch to create a better community. He takes us to three disparate places: Disney World, Burning Man, and Zuccotti Park, the public plaza in New York where the Occupy Wall Street movement began.
The man in black is like a performance artist literally out of water (but not coffee and psychedelics) at Burning Man. He tells us straight out that he is opposed — pause — to camping. He doesn’t like being naked in public because — pause — he needs pockets. But he and his wife and collaborator, Jean-Michele Gregory, eventually commune with their “tribe,” led by a tattooed character called Captain Breakfast. In a series of vivid images that are hilarious, raunchy, and at times profound, he describes a spectacle where mutant vehicles appear miraculously in the desert, a place where orgies coexist with courses in crocheting.
The piece takes a hard right when Daisey turns to Disney World, which he visited with his extended family from New Jersey. These folks are hard-core Mouseketeers. Disney, he tells us, is their religion. Daisey’s observations about the place where dreams come true are not particularly original. It’s pristine. It’s perfect. It’s better than Prague! But his relatives, for all their obsession with the fabulous “Extra Hours,” come off as endearing in their all-American desire to create a living fantasy in their own backyard.
The sections on Zuccotti Park are less compelling, because Daisey didn’t actually go there. He was a mile away in Brooklyn. He strives to glorify the protest, but he lacks the gorgeous details that illuminate his other tales. The piece is about how strangers come together in public places to “build a slightly better mousetrap,” and it works when Daisey paints a vivid picture, using only his well-modulated voice as an instrument. The material is thin with the Occupy movement, and it goes on for far too long.
Daisey got into truthiness trouble last year with his monologue “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which prompted a retraction from the public radio show “This American Life.” I couldn’t help making a mental list of facts to check. Does Cousin Chris from New Jersey really throw elaborate safari-themed parties? And if she does, how do I get an invitation? I also couldn’t help noting factual discrepancies. If Daisey’s relatives conned their way into getting a special needs pass at Disney by putting Uncle Dick in a wheelchair, they didn’t need to race for Fast Passes to cut the lines. (Yes, I know this. The secret to taking the kids to Disney is getting over yourself.) And the Disney conglomerate did, in fact, build a Stepford-like city in the swamplands of Florida. It’s called Celebration, population 7,427, and has neat little houses and a main street that leads straight to the Magic Kingdom.
In the end, Daisey wants to take his message to the streets, in this case a place just over a block from the site of the Liberty Tree, where the original conversation about this American experiment first began. He is asking if we can create a community in the theater, where people come together to share a common experience. The answer is sometimes, when the stories gel and the magic rings true.