Monologist Mike Daisey has made his name channeling outrage on a range of contemporary issues while seated calmly behind a desk before an audience. His manner may be that of a homeroom teacher calling the roll, but he brings an artist’s outsider perspective and comports himself like a radical of common sense.
A personal essayist reporting on his anthropological fieldwork on corruption and hypocrisy, he combines the digressively meditative style of performance artist Spalding Gray with the gadfly relentlessness of documentary filmmaker Michael Moore.
His latest offering, “The Trump Card,” which was at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Thursday for a single night (and can be seen at La Jolla Playhouse Oct. 4 to 9), tackles a subject that is ubiquitous at the moment — the political rise of real estate magnate and reality TV star Donald Trump, who unbelievably to many is locked in a tight race for the presidency against Hillary Clinton.
“Unbelievable” is not a word that Daisey would use to describe the Trump phenomenon. Having kept a close eye on the way reality and TV have collapsed into each other, he argued that what is happening in this election is the logical next step in a society that has turned politics into a new species of entertainment. (For Daisey, Sarah Palin’s vice presidential run was the dark turning point.)
In evaluating a theatrical piece about Trump, two criteria immediately suggest themselves. First, what fresh insights are brought to a subject that is inundated by a live stream of commentary? Second, how does the element of performance challenge and complicate our mode of understanding?
The commentary bar is set rather high. Just this week, I read a brilliant postmortem on Monday’s presidential debate by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, watched the in-depth PBS “Frontline” documentary “The Choice 2016,” laughed as humorists and standup comics reacted to Trump’s latest off-the-rails remarks and kept abreast of the increasingly aggressive reporting on the myriad scandals involving his foundation, business and personal conduct.
I can’t say I learned anything new about Trump from Daisey, but he did make me rethink the way I have been prioritizing information. His show recalibrates the data, placing more emphasis on Trump’s genius as a performer — a performer limited to one larger-than-life role, that of Donald Trump.
Daisey divides his show into narrative movements. The overall structure is clumsy and rambling — a sign that the story is still unfolding, with each day providing new bombshells. “The Trump Card” ran, uninterrupted, for nearly 2½ hours. That’s a lot of talking, and in the final phase Daisey seemed anxious about not delivering some kind of Trumpian epiphany.
He should trust that the associative turns of his keen mind provide sufficient dramatic incentive. More confidence in his observational intelligence might allow him to think more objectively about the form of the piece and to economize his sprawling material so that it can detonate more powerfully.
Daisey was at his best when he interweaves his own story with Trump’s — one performer taking the measure of another. A central anecdote revolved around a party he threw at his Brooklyn home in which “Trump: The Board Game” was ironically played while Trump steaks and Trump wine (or reasonable facsimiles of these products) were served. This “Monopoly for dogs” served as metaphor for the fraudulence that Daisey sees as the defining feature of Trump the businessman.
The show linked Trump’s birther campaign to what Daisey called his “racist” father’s discriminatory practices as a “slumlord” — practices that Trump eagerly adopted as his own, according to Daisey. The legal battle that stemmed from this apparently allowed Roy Cohn, Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s notorious henchman, to become Trump’s “consigliere.” The brash scion eagerly took on the role of “apprentice,” Daisey said, learning the art of dirty ticks and false innuendo from a master.
It would appear from this overview that Daisey was generously providing what he derisively called the “red meat” that liberal theatergoers in America expect from a show about Trump. But while he didn’t stint in serving up the usual critique, he simultaneously deconstructed this line of attack, refusing to let his audience off the hook in terms of their complicity in Trump’s ascendancy.
This is where the performance dimension of the piece was most compelling. Daisey is as impatient with the self-congratulatory attitudes of theatergoing elites as he is disgusted with the divisive platform of a demagogue. He sympathized with poor, rural working-class whites who feel shafted by the global economy. The story is personal for him — he imagined a conversation about the candidates with his mother inside her trailer home in Maine — and he wants to make it personal for us by implicating us in what has happened politically, economically and culturally to the country.
More than once, Daisey referred to himself as an “artist” and therefore a “professional liar.” He was discreetly recalling for us the controversy that ensued when it was discovered that not everything narrated in his piece “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” was factually true. Trump’s lawyers might have something to say about Daisey’s claims here, but theatergoers were more concerned with the story that was being uniquely woven in the monologist’s imagination.
The truth, ultimately, is interpretive. And in any case the show’s originality lies more in its delivery than in its details.
The awkwardness that occurred from time to time in Daisey’s rapport with the audience — the way he turned on us intermittently while making the case against Trump, the laughter that was shoved back down our throats when it grew too “smug” — helped to transform a screed into something more theatrically dynamic and innovative.
Directed by Isaac Butler, the production set up no interference between Daisey and the audience. The focus was entirely on his speaking presence. Trusting in the audience’s attention span, “The Trump Card” is the equivalent of long-form journalism. It needs a ruthless editor, but there’s much to collectively chomp on as we await the outcome of this terrifying election.
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