Wednesday, January 16, 2013

NEWCITY REVIEW: 'The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs' at 16th Street Theater

Photo: David Skorpen

Nearly a year after the controversy surrounding monologuist Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” reached its pinnacle—a stormy timeline including, but not limited to, an official retraction from WBEZ’s “This American Life” and a canceled run at the Chicago Theatre—the play has been resurrected in a new, “ethically made” edition.
The original version’s discrepancies lay with a few of the performer’s firsthand experiences in Shenzhen, China—the employment status of a man with a mangled hand, proof of seemingly underage workers’ birthdates, Foxconn guards improbably wielding guns, etcetera—that were called into question after Daisey’s appearance on public radio. Those portions have been removed. You can leave your torches at home.
The thought on most theatergoers’ minds—for, once the “Agony” debate became yesterday’s news, Daisey resumed his role as a mostly theatrical entity—is “has the work been tarnished by all the outrage and hubbub over the falsehoods?” As I discovered at the 16th Street Theater, not really. When the house lights came up in the Berwyn space at the end of the monologue, audience members’ hands still nervously lurched into their pockets, eyes full of paranoia darting around to make sure no one actually saw them operate a cell phone. Daisey calls his monologue a “virus,” the information slowly infecting from person to person, and he is exactly right.

I cannot defend the five minutes of excised material from the original “Agony”; however I also can’t, with good conscience, condemn it. Having read many pages of available commentary as well as the transcript of “This American Life”‘s retraction, the entire situation continues to conjure a hefty amount of confusion on my end. But the information in “Agony 2.0,” here performed by actor Lance Baker, has been fact-checked, exhaustively scrutinized and corroborated by plenty of sources like The New York Times. Regardless, this is a theater review, not an exposé, and “The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” is an exemplary, hysterical, coyly mobilizing work of theater.
While criticizing all tech giants through the metaphor of Apple, one of Daisey’s most intelligent maneuvers is an open admission to his enthusiastic Apple fandom. In so doing, the writer establishes that he’s not a loudmouthed contrarian out to ridicule popular products. If anything, he’s a conscientious Apple user (possibly a former one) who watches the nightly news and reads the paper. His mentions of suicide nets attached to Foxconn factories in order to catch their jumping workers (this production uses projected images to reinforce the language) are not the yarn spinning of an embittered fabulist; they were well-reported events by news outlets. But it took a work of theater and a loud controversy to get those horrors some widespread attention.