Thursday, April 06, 2006

Performance: Bertholt and Me

Great Men of Genius created and performed by Mike Daisey, directd by Jean-Michele Gregory, Capitol Hill Arts Center, April 6, 7, 8 and 9.

So when we were at the REP last weekend (after the play, before the resturant quest), the Lovely Bride picked up one of the postcard promos for monologuist Mike Daisey's latest work. We knew Daisey from his 21 Dog Years: Doing Time on Amazon.Com, and I really liked his geek-brother style, The flier was for Great Men of Genius, a set of "bio-logues" on Bertolt Brecht, P. T. Barnum, Nikola Tesla, and L. Ron Hubbard. Liked the artist, liked the subject matter. Sure, we can do the Thursday show.

Then the wrinkle, the small print, as it were - he is actually doing four separate monologues on four separate nights - First Brecht tonight, Barnum Friday, Tesla Saturday, and Hubbard wrapping on Sunday. And with the Lovely Bride's work schedule, we could make Brecht and Tesla, but not Barnum and Hubbard. So we did get up to Cap Hill for CHAC, a nice space with a brick wall background and mostly full house, for the first one in the series.

Now monologuists are one of those few jobs where you are forgiven, nay, you are expected, to talk about yourself at length. In addition to Daisey, Spalding Grey and Josh Kornbluth fit this model - their lives become their subject matter. So it should not be a surprise that these bio-logues are not Daisey channeling these various 20th Cent. Geniuses, or even providing a hard and fast biography of the Great Men (though he catches the high point and illuminates a few shadows along the way). Rather, the lives of his subjects are springboards of how they intersect with Daisey's past and allow Daisey to compare his own experiences with those of his subject. Brecht enters through Daisey's theater class background, with the concepts of alienism and the epic theatre of ideas.

Alienism, the best I can figure out, is the disengagement of viewer from the work, usually carried out through unsympathetic main characters, to better allow the ideas and purpose of the piece ultimately resonate with the viewer. This is of course anathema to my own style, where I am usually looking to create bridges between reader and character, the better to "sell" my concepts to an increasingly-sympathetic audience. Daisey, in one of the first of many solid laughs of the night, points out that this is why so much bad theatre is called "Brechtian" - both it and Brecht's work makes you not care about the characters.

[The Lovely Bride was a BIG Brecht fan when she was young, and she's the one that explained all this to me. And then explained it to me again. And then explained it a third time, by which point we had gotten home and she is now under the misconception that I understood it. Please don't tell her otherwise].

So anyway, we get Brecht's life and Daisey performing Brecht. Brecht's relationship to a Praetorian Guard of female fellow-playrights and Daisey's own relationship with his director/lovely bride. Brecht's time in Hollywood and Daisey's, at the same theater that The Life of Galileo debuted at. Brecht dealing with the HUAC as a real honest-to-god communist (though wasn't a party member because he was cheap) and Daisey's own Libertarian attempt at overly free-speech. It is Brecht and Daisey, Daisey and Brecht.

So does he pull it off? Oh yeah. There are parts that he had gathered the small audience (100? 120?) into a sympathizing, supportive band of brothers, and parts where he got extreme reactions from individual members of the audience, striking personal memories through his own (To the people taping that evening - the loud, rattling laughter during the discussion of Daisey and his wife/director going over notes at 3 AM? That laugh belongs to the Lovely Bride. Yes, its mirrored experiences when we work together - yes, Daisey takes it better than I do).

So it feels like a shakedown flight, a trying out of material to see what works and what sits there. Daisey works from notes but not from a script, and while parts have the solid patter of someone who has worked out the discussion in their head to the ultimate fineness, other parts feel like they are still searching for the right word, the right angle, the right something to hit them out of the park. But he hits pretty darn often.

So yes, I'm looking forward to the Tesla monologue, and I'm thinking of hitting the Hubbard one alone (though I'll bet that one will be packed). I'm looking forward to what Daisey has to say. And that's a compliment for any storyteller.

More later,