As evidenced by monologist Mike Daisey's 2003 book-length adaptation of his breakout solo performance, the Amazon-cubicle-drone epic 21 Dog Years, the man in print is eloquent, insightful, funny, and scathing. And it is a testament to his ability as a performer that, having seen the monologue before reading the book, I found this well-written tale completely lukewarm compared to its live counterpart.
The book version of 21 Dog Years merely demonstrates Daisey's immense storytelling gift: his ability to seamlessly weave social commentary, in-depth historical research, and personal anecdote, creating not a thread but a rope of narration that moves almost tangibly through space and time. In one of his planned TBA monologues, MONOPOLY!, for instance, Daisey fluctuates between the real-life saga of Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison's battle over electricity standards, the secret history of the actual board game Monopoly, and the impact Wal-Mart has had on his hometown in Maine. For his other TBA show, the much more recently developed IF YOU SEE SOMETHING SAY SOMETHING, he addresses the history of Homeland Security (the show's title is the organization's creepy motto), the biography of the man who invented the terrifying neutron bomb, and his own pilgrimage to the Trinity Site in New Mexico, where America's first nuclear weapon was tested. Each topic could easily comprise a book of its own; Daisey effortlessly fits them all into two separate 100-minute performances, unearthing connections between them that surprise and delight.
But as befits a great storyteller, Daisey's tales must be heard to be believed. While he exhibits pitch-perfect comic timing and a strong, confident physicality onstage, it is his voice that dazzles most. Speaking, he sounds outraged yet reasonable, cynical yet hopeful, wise beyond his 34 years, and most importantly, deeply empathetic. Emanating from a round, friendly-looking man with a wide, expressive face, it is a voice that seems to be speaking directly to you no matter how large the crowd around you. It is a voice that invites you to join Daisey under the great umbrella of the world and gaze out from under it with chagrin and wonder.
"The charge of being onstage is a responsibility," Daisey told me during a recent phone conversation. "My job as a monologist is not dissimilar to being a pastor in a non-religious service. It's one person trying to speak, and in opening up their experience, bringing people into it. People will come on board with that, especially if you are truly trying to communicate truth."