Great Men of Genius
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
November 5, 2007
Mike Daisey turns it on in the first installment of Great Men of Genius, his four-part exploration of some of the past century's foremost historical and cultural figures. By which I mean that he puts on a dazzling clinic in the art of solo performance and storytelling. This is smart, funny, engaging theatre that is not to be missed under any circumstances.
The performance I attended was dedicated to the legendary showman P.T. Barnum, who gets the royal treatment from Daisey. Recounting with admiration the highlights of Barnum's colorful life—which included a failed business venture, a job as a newspaper editor, and a prison sentence all before the age of 20—Daisey paints a vivid picture of the man who issued the maxim, "If the truth isn't interesting, it isn't really the truth." Barnum, who was born into a family of "shysters and tricksters," grew up to be the greatest of them all. A master of spin and hyperbole, he made his reputation with an endless parade of exhibitions that featured freaks of nature like Joice Heth (who was allegedly 160 years old and George Washington's nurse), the famous dwarf General Tom Thumb, and Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins (a phrase which Barnum coined). He also subsidized the U.S. debut tour of Jenny Lind, the European soprano whose celebrated voice and appearances galvanized the birth of opera houses around the country.
Barnum's story is juxtaposed with hilarious anecdotes from Daisey's own life, like his partnership with Australian producer David Foster (whose diminutive stature he describes as that of "a very virile fairy"), a high-spirited burlesque striptease lesson Daisey's wife and her friends receive at a bachelorette party, and Daisey's memorable adolescent encounter with a scale model replica of the bridge of the starship Enterprise at the Maine State Fair.
What these events and stories all have in common is Daisey's fascination with the intersection of high culture and low culture (something which Barnum excelled at). He draws riotous and surprisingly convincing parallels between Medea and America's Next Top Model (both of which, he convincingly argues, tell the same story), and talks about the guilty pleasure appeal of the off-Broadway novelty hit, Puppetry of the Penis (produced by none other than Daisey's partner, David Foster). Best of all is when Daisey explains why Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is really just Moby Dick in space, except without the whale.
Daisey's facility for bringing such disparate-seeming threads together is astonishing. In addition to his quicksilver extemporizing (he has notes, which he never looks at, on the table in front of him), he commandingly takes the audience down many separate roads without once losing their confidence. Even if it looks like he doesn't know where he's going, the viewer never doubts for a moment that he does. That's how totally in control he is. Plus, he's a gifted raconteur: he's so damn funny and personable (one feels as if they're having their own private audience with him) it's impossible not to be riveted. And when he closes the evening by stating that it's "difficult and challenging to live without shame," he movingly and magically ties everything together with the utterance of a single sentence.
By the time this review goes up, Daisey will be readying the second installment of Great Men of Genius, which focuses on Bertolt Brecht. Subsequent weeks will bring evenings about Nikola Tesla and L. Ron Hubbard. Whichever one of these you catch, I urge you to go see Daisey in action. His performances are as inspiring as they are mysterious: you don't know how he does it, but you can't stop watching.