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Reviews Tue Nov 06 2012

Presenting Mike Daisey's "American Utopia"

Mike Daisey is known for more than just his off-the-cuff monologue delivery style and propensity to insert himself into unlikely situations for the sake of story. He's known more widely for a gaffe perpetrated on NPR's "This American Life" earlier this year in which he provided a staggering account of treacherous working conditions at Foxconn, a factory in China where iPads and iPhones are built. The segment was subject to the same brand of Daisification — whipping and spinning details for impact — that all of his stories undergo, and garnered an unprecedented swath of attention from listeners.

In true literary fashion, Daisey's accounts of factory life were embellished, expanded upon for effect, and bolstered with unreal detail. Indeed, many of the interactions Daisey described with workers were fabrications, and thus, his ruination was apparently set in motion. "This American Life" retracted the broadcast, and host Ira Glass challenged Daisey to explain himself on air.

Mike Daisey.jpegDespite the controversy, Daisey's standing as an excellent storyteller was solidified; the broadcast was one of the most listened to in the popular program's history, and actually got some activists and journalists moving on addressing working conditions in Apple factories.

The Chicago Humanities Festival invited Daisey to participate in this season's program in a running performance of a monologue entitled "American Utopias," with remaining performances scheduled for November 8, 10 and 11.

In "American Utopias," Daisey describes three intensely American attempts to create Utopia: Disney World, Burning Man, and the Occupy movement's stay in and eventual violent extraction from Zuccotti Park. The former topics were more compelling as Daisey describes his presence in both as comically inappropriate. Highpoints in the program showcased Daisey's talent for sensory description. Conversely, when the message turned political, stories were somewhat less vivid, although not without points of fascination.

It is clear that Daisey is forever seeking the next great story. He seems to dig through his life for glimmers of reality that lend well to sardonic interpretation. Plenty of malleable moments, rife with opportunity for injecting meaning, came together throughout the performance, resulting in laughter and satisfying nuggets that rang entirely true.

"We always want to be taken out of ourselves, but want to know exactly what's going to happen," Daisey said. "It can keep us from doing anything with our lives."

Profound statements often moved seamlessly into the mundane. Daisey described setting up a tent at Burning Man with his wife: "The tent is up but it's a little like a middle aged man's erection; it should get the job done. We're lucky it's even here."

Whether details are enhanced or completely made-up doesn't so much matter for the purposes of this show; Daisey wants to show us the way he sees the world, and the way it feels to be him within it. To watch such meaning unfold from what looks like chicken scratch on yellow legal pad paper on the table in front of him is quite astounding. And the show is not without surprises better left unmentioned for the sake of the performance.

As he told it, Daisey barely made it out of Disneyland alive. Here, he masterfully wove personal anecdote together with a thoughtful discussion of why the Disney experience works, and has permeated American interest in the way it has. Hes described Disneyland as the experience of inhabiting someone else's version of Utopia, and Disney himself as a master of forced perspective. Part of the appeal for adults, he said, is the opportunity to experience joy vicariously through children seeing something they've only dreamed of for the first time.

It's plausible that the outlines he refers to on those few sheets of paper, which somehow amounted to nearly two hours of monologue, may take shape differently from show to show. But that's part of Daisey's artistry, and likely part of what makes his words as infectious as they are.

Tickets are available for $28, $22 for members, and $10 for students and teachers here.

 

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Book Club is the literary section of Gapers Block, covering Chicago's authors, poets and literary events. More...

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