Monday, June 11, 2007
Geniuses in Berkeley
Regular readers know I am a fan of the one-man show, so you'd think a five-hour-long monologue would be right in my wheelhouse. However, I was intimidated by the marathon length of Mike Daisey's "Great Men of Genius," a four-chapter meditation on the lives of Bertolt Brecht, P.T. Barnum, Nikola Tesla and L. Ron Hubbard. All four parts of "Genius" are being presented on Sundays this month at the Berkeley Rep; the parts may also be viewed individually on Wednesday through Saturday. Anyway, I decided to buy a ticket to Sunday night's performance of the Tesla/Hubbard monologues. (There's a dinner break after Brecht/Barnum.)

Naturally, after being thoroughly entertained and enlightened by the show, I wished I had gotten there at 2 PM so I could have seen the earlier half. Ah well; I'll catch it next weekend.

I saw Daisey's "21 Dog Years" a while back, and found his performance style, with its wild gesticulations, to be a little too in-your-face, as overcaffeinated as a triple espresso. "Dog" tells the story of Daisey's employment at in the early days of the dotcom boom, a topic ripe for broad satire, but I thought it could have used more nuance. But Daisey is still young (34) and I was interested to find out how he had grown as an artist. The answer: a lot. If "Dog" sometimes felt like one of those heavy metal songs that bludgeons you over the head with its loud drums & guitars, "Great Men" is a symphony, complete with artful crescendoes and quiet passages that will have you on the edge of your seat, absorbing every word.

The solo monologuist must be a person of some ego, since he is, in essence, asking us to pay to come hear him talk about his life -- something you could get for free just by riding any AC Transit bus through Berkeley. The best practitioners of the form, such as the late Spalding Gray and Josh Kornbluth, are able to connect their personal sagas to some larger, universal truth. That's what Daisey achieves in "Great Men," which alternates passages about the lives of Tesla and Hubbard with anecdotes from his own life. The biographical information is fascinating and makes the show seem less solipsistic than something that's All About Mike. In fact, some of the stories about Tesla are so bizarre that I felt compelled to Google them when I got home to make sure that they were true. (They were.) But I have to admit that even placed next to the strange, sad life of Nikola Tesla, Daisey's tales of his high school science fair held my interest just as much; plus, they had the entire audience in stitches.

It's clear why the Hubbard monologue is the last one in the set and it's also a good indication of what a true artist Daisey has turned into. The personal story he weaves is so subtle that in the lobby afterwards, I heard people discussing it in hushed voices: "Was he saying that his grandfather..." You draw your own conclusions, and it stays with you afterward. As for the Hubbard stuff, Daisey's got guts, going after the organization he describes as "the most litigious in the history of the world."

Is it too early to declare "Great Men of Genius" the theatrical event of the year? It's certainly one of the most ambitious, a grandiose idea that's paid off in a big way.
posted by 125records @ 10:44 AM  
  • At 3:56 AM, Blogger yellojkt said…

    Sorry, I can't help thinking of those Budwieser commercials. Now those are real men of genius.

  • At 4:00 AM, Blogger yellojkt said…

    There was a show on PBS years ago where they had actors as famous historical people discuss things roundtable style. My mind is drawing a blank on who the host was.

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