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Marathon Man

June 18, 2007

Mike Daisey's monologues which link four remarkable figures in history with episodes from his own life were probably not conceived to be performed all in one go. But during his run at Berkeley Rep, Daisey is undertaking several "marathons" consisting of performances of the four works in one day. Usually, audiences get to experience only one "genius" per setting as each monologue runs at between 75 and 90 minutes in length.

The thing about attending marathons like this is that you end up looking for connections between all the works, whereas in this case each work stands better on its own. With this marathon, connections end up being more about looking out for stylistic repetitions than understanding something about the world that wouldn't otherwise be possible if you experienced each part in isolation.

Daisey is, of course, a powerful, hilarious, touching monologist. His face is an elastic ball of expressiveness. He has a great way of building each segment of his story to a climax. He makes us laugh. There's also something very gentle about him too. He never takes the obvious route with his stories or goes for the predictable laugh. His take on each of the four "geniuses" on the program - Tesla, Brecht, Barnum, and Hubbbard - made me wish I'd had him as a history teacher at high school.

Instead of making obvious links between the historical subject and the details of his own life, Daisey allows us to draw our own conclusions. This is subtle and sublime. And sometimes the non sequiturs are startling. At one point during his piece about Barnum (my personal favorite of the quartet) Daisey went from talking about a group of his wife's friends learning how to rotate the tassles on pasties on their breasts (depending on whether your arms are up above your head or down by your waist you can make the tassles rotate in different directions) to discussing Barnum's most famous employees.

But seeing all four pieces together took its toll on me in the end. The main problem is the repetitiveness of the mise-en-scene. Daisey always performs his work sitting behind a table, dressed in black, with nothing but a set of handwritten notes on yellow lined paper, a glass of water (which he rarely touches) and a black hand towel (which he frequently uses to mop his brow) before him. He's such an engaging storyteller, that his words, face, upper body movements and some subtle changes in lighting are enough to keep the viewer entranced over an hour and a half.

But after a three hours, the staging starts to become stale and formulaic. Daisey structures each monologue in exactly the same way: He begins with some words about the genius in question, and then moves into an anecdote about his own life. Then he returns to the genius, then once again to himself and on and on until the end.

Even the whacky non-sequiturs become predictable after you've been through a few. I found myself yearning for more information about his fascinating subjects and less about Daisey's own life. In the same way that the monologues are structured in a repetitive way, so, also, is the lighting design, which brightens and dims with almost every segment break.

And while the subtlety of the links between Daisey's life and those of his subjects is wonderfully freeing, I would have liked to have a little more connecting the four pieces together from a thematic standpoint, besides similarities in structure. When I heard the word "Medea" come up in each of the first two monologues (Brecht and Barnum) my mind started working overtime to think of how the Greek tragic heroine might fit into all four stories about these men. But it was a waste of time. Medea stopped appearing after Barnum. The connection between "high culture" and "low culture" seemed to be something to hang on to at the start of the show, but the character had vanished completely by monologue three. The idea of the fine line between genius and madman was another potentially interesting route of inquiry. I felt that Daisey could have done more with it though.

I think audiences are probably better off returning to the theatre four times to experience each monologue fresh rather than barreling through them all as I did yesterday. It's an exhausting endeavor, both for the performer (I'm sure) and for the audience. By the time we were done with L. Ron Hubbard at about 10 pm last night, I'd had my fill of geniuses for one day.

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