BWW Reviews: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Socially Conscious Theater
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by Leah Stacy
It's a safe bet to assume Steve Jobs is a household name.
Perhaps not as big as 'iPhone' or 'Mac,' but when playwright/monologist Mike Daisey picked the name for his investigative monologue surrounding the production of Apple products in China, he did so with the audience in mind.
That being said, let's get something out of the way.
"The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" is not a biography about Steve Jobs (at least not in the traditional sense). Secondly, every audience member will be uncomfortable at some point during this show.
Mike Daisey premiered "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" at Portland's TBA Festival in 2010. The controversial subject matter brought audiences flocking to seats, eager to hear what Daisey had to say about Apple production and Steve Jobs. Eventually, the media began to interview Daisey. He was using the arts to blow the lid off an issue no one had really touched. But, he falsified some of the information. And lied to Ira Glass. On "This American Life."
No one does that.
Daisey apologizes and amends his scripT. Fast forward a ---few --- years, he continues to produce great theater, but people refuse to forget about the falsified information. Still, the show must go on.
Geva Theatre added the highly controversial play to their 2012-13 NextStage roster after Daisey reissued the script - version 2.0 - where everything's been fixed, fact checked and found true. Daisey chose to open source the first-person script, placing it online, royalty-free, for anyone to download and produce. This meant GTC Artistic Director Mark Cuddy was able to make the production unique to Rochester-but he also had to find someone who could "play" Daisey. That someone is Remi Sandri, a Geva favorite who last appeared in "A Christmas Carol."
And for those who have seen Daisey perform the show (either version, for that matter), this will be a very different sort of night.
Sandri is not Daisey, and (thankfully) he doesn't attempt to mimic Daisey. Where Daisey remains seated throughout the entirety of his performances, accompanied only by a sheet of paper with the outlined monologue and a glass of water to soothe the lungs laboriously in use for the duration of the show, Sandri is energetic and moves around the stage (a creative decision made by director Mark Cuddy), engaging the audience not only through the monologue but also his open body language. While playwright Daisey is a master of the memorable one-liner and visual description, Sandri is a master character actor and stage presence. It's a match made in performance heaven.
The stage, too, is different. Daisey travels without props or set design. Here, scenic and lighting designer Matthew Reinert has taken creative license to transform the floor into a large, blood-red Chinese flag and replaced the largest star on the flag with an Apple symbol. Brilliantly, the set is reminiscent of Apple's own Bauhaus-inspired designs. Using sound effects, photo slides and music, sound and projection designer Dan Roach has created a strong supporting cast in Geva's version of the show.
During the script development, dramaturg Jenni Werner, Cuddy and Sandri collaborated on a short aside to provoke the audience's conscience even further. At one point, Sandri steps out of Daisey's character and becomes himself-- with a message for the audience. Sandri implores the audience to forget about Daisey's missteps and instead, focus on the very real problems addressed by the show: labor, suicide, greed. Sandri treats it as a powerful conversation and it's apparent that he has connected deeply with the weight of the material he performs.
"Tonight is a virus," Sandri (as Daisey) says at the end of the performance. "And tonight, you've all been infected."
Hopefully, it's a virus that causes one symptom in particular: a drive to support shows that arelow budget, open-source and bearing an important message.
"The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" runs through February 10 at the Fielding NextStage in Geva Theatre Center, 75 Woodbury Blvd., Rochester. For tickets, call 585-232-GEVA or visit gevatheatre.org.
Photo by Chris Holden.