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July 20, 2012

Mike Daisey revisits 'Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs' at Woolly Mammoth Theatre

In a way, it has turned into "The Agony and Ecstasy of Mike Daisey."

He's the inventive monologist whose career skyrocketed when he created a riveting, scathing examination of the man behind Apple and the conditions in Shenzhen, the Chinese manufacturing metropolis where an enormous amount of high-tech equipment is made.

An unexpected thing happened on the way from Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, where Daisey's "The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" had its first tryout two years ago and where it has returned for a summer run, to its much-acclaimed New York presentation, which opened last fall. The truth started catching up with the play.

By March, the author was forced to admit that ...

he had fabricated portions of the work dealing with Chinese workers. Some of the most compelling, supposedly eye-witnessed scenes did not happen the way Daisey described, including those about child labor and horrible accidents, and rifle-bearing guards at the massive Foxconn plant that produces Apple devices.

After a portion of the show containing the embellishments aired on the public radio show "The American Life," the podcast of that broadcast had to be retracted, an embarrassing episode for the program.

All of this caused quite a dust-up, in journalistic circles as much as theatrical ones. Fans and detractors of Daisey argued finer points of truth, responsibility, poetic license. In interviews and some public appearances, he vacillated between apology and defiance.

Now we know which side won. A few nips and tucks to the script, and Daisey is right back where he started, looking perfectly at home at Woolly Mammoth, which had arranged for a public forum for Daisey shortly after the controversy broke and which never wavered in its determination to put "The Agony and Ecstasy" back onstage.

(Remarkably, a specially priced performance on Aug. 4 will be followed by a conversation between Daisey and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who has expressed support for the play.)

Daisey is clearly in his element as he takes a seat at a glass table -- the only prop, save for some subtle lighting effects, in this production, directed by his wife, Jean-Michele Gregory -- and expounds for nearly two hours, rarely looking at the outline on sheets of paper in front of him.

The most disputed passages have been excised; a couple a brief allusions to the scandal have been added. Along the way, Daisey inserts a-grain-of-salt reminder to the audience: "I am a noted fabulist." Even more pointedly, he says: "I have a disgusting amount of control over the narrative."

What Daisey does not do is express regret or contrition. He is so sure of the essential validity of his observations about the products and the jobs Jobs created that he clearly sees no point in backing off or toning down. Curiously, Daisey avoids mentioning the death of the Apple guru, and still speaks about the man largely in the present tense.

The play remains a hearty assault on the mentality and methodology of Jobs and his company, as well as on the consumers -- Daisey willingly includes and roasts himself in this regard -- who just couldn't wait for the next Apple product, even when it wasn't an improvement on the last.

The look at super-geekdom provides some of the funniest material in the show. Just hearing Daisey imitate an early version of a dot matrix printer is, in its own crazy way, worth the price of admission.

A discussion of the evolution from iPod mini to iPod nano is likewise awfully amusing. And, in addition to assorted zingers (“Having an AT&T iPhone is like not having an iPhone”), Daisey offers entertaining and provocative versions of what went on inside Silicon Valley over the years.

Throughout, Daisey generates an odd kind of music with his voice, which covers an awfully wide dynamic range and is frequently punctuated, usually when you least expect it, with deafening, Lewis Black-like bursts of volume. It's all quite the tour de force for Daisey, a super-sized man with a healthy ego to match.

People who feel badly burned by what he did in the original play may not find much reason now to forgive or forget. In retrospect, it seems so unnecessary for Daisey to have fictionalized anything. He had plenty of damning stuff, as subsequent reportage by the New York Times and others verified.

In its revised form, this is still a strangely powerful, volatile work of polemical theater, a two-hour sermon on the dangers of a religion with gadgets for gods, and a consumer habit that requires an unseen army of poorly paid laborers in a far off country.

Don't be surprised if, after witnessing Daisey's intense performance, you wait a while longer than usual on the way out of the theater to grab your cell phone and check for those oh-so-important messages you might have missed.

"The Agony and Ecstasy" continues at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through Aug. 5. 

Posted by Tim Smith at 6:17 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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