If you plan to attend Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” you might want to prepare an essay for the benefit of your friends and family on the topic of “Why I Am Throwing Away All My Electronics.” Daisey’s powerful, at times melodramatic call to arms is conditionally entertaining: If you allow yourself to have a good time listening to his evocative stories of computer culture and its cost in human suffering, you’re bound to leave the theater changed.
Daisey makes the case for examined consumerism in his latest show, and, following the course he set in “The Last Cargo Cult” the last time he was at the Public, opts for the prescriptive over the contemplative. On the way out the door, theatergoers are given fliers itemizing reasonable ways you, the audience, can make a difference. It’s a good choice; the anecdotes, statistics, and old-fashioned moral arguments the monologist puts forth in his latest show demand action.
Taking such a firm stand, however, puts the burden of proof entirely on Daisey. If this is political theater, he’d better be able to show us some theater before he trots out his politics.
And he does. Daisey’s first story takes us to Shenzhen, China, the Special Economic Zone where the factories that make most of your electronics and mine are staffed around the clock by impoverished laborers. “The air is so thick that it’s smearing ubiquitous neon like we’ve all done just a liiiitle bit of LSD,” Daisey explains, his voice bouncing and shivering from one syllable to the next. Much (too much, frankly) has been written about the monologist’s unprepossessing appearance, but sit in front of him for more than five minutes and he’ll disappear completely.
Daisey’s job got a lot more difficult Oct. 5, when the tech magnate who gives the show its name died after a prolonged struggle with pancreatic cancer. But Daisey manages to walk the tightrope between deferring to a hallowed dead man who did a lot of bad things and ignoring the passing of a much-loved public figure.
Jobs was loved, widely and loudly. In the weeks that have followed his death, everyone from Apple fans to Jobs’ own corporate peers have spoken up about the impact Jobs has had on their lives. In “Agony and the Ecstasy,” Daisey gives voice to people who are unlikely ever to have a forum in which to express an opinion of Apple, Inc. One Shenzhen worker, his hand crushed by a metal press, destroying his employment prospects, calls Daisey’s iPad “a kind of magic” as he runs his ruined fingers across the glass. It’s an image unlikely to leave your mind’s eye as you peruse your own gadgets.
Helmer Jean-Michele Gregory (Daisey’s wife) helps create a bond between the performer and the audience that is absolutely essential to the show’s emotional impact. Set and lighting designer Seth Reiser, too, gives the show some nice, unobtrusive touches, with a series of LED lines mounted on a wall behind Daisey flickering when Apple missteps and fading in and out when it scores an industrial goal.
“If you haven’t thought in a deep way about your choice of operating system, you may be living an unexamined life.” The line, delivered early in the show, gets laughs, but walking out of the theater, it’s hard not to concede the point.