THEATER REVIEW: Peeling the Apple

"The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs"

| January 30, 2013
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The complete title of "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," the one-man show currently being performed at Geva's Nextstage theater, has a brief addendum attached to it: "Version 2.0." This small, but not insignificant addition refers to the fact that the one-man show — a polemic meant to call attention to the inhumane working conditions at Foxconn, the factory in Shenzhen, China where Apple's line of products (along with most of the world's electronics) are produced — had to be altered from its original version by its author, Mike Daisey. The writer got himself into a bit of trouble shortly after he began performing the monologue, when, following an appearance on the popular public-radio show "This American Life," it came to light that certain facts contained in the piece were not entirely true.

The problem wasn't simply that Daisey fudged a few facts for the sake of dramatic effect; that in itself isn't necessarily an issue if you're out to create an entertaining bit of theater. The problem lay in the fact that he was attempting to pass off the show as hard journalism, and a work entirely of nonfiction. After all, as a journalist, you don't get points for writing stories that are "mostly true." Following the controversy that erupted in the wake of this revelation, Daisey revised his work, cutting out the offending material as well as making reference to the controversy itself within the piece. Daisey chose to open source the monologue, putting its text online, free of charge, as a way to encourage productions like this one, staged in theaters across the country. Geva's production has been adapted from that revised version of Daisey's monologue, with an actor, Remi Sandri, playing the role of Mike Daisey.

In the show currently at Geva, Daisey describes his experience visiting the massive Shenzhen plant, where nearly half-a-million workers are employed, observing what he can of the conditions of the factory. His experiences in China are interspersed with a rundown of the career of Steve Jobs and his involvement in the rise and fall (and, of course, rise again) of Apple computers, explaining exactly how the company got to be in the market-leading position it enjoys today. It doesn't provide the most flattering portrait of Jobs, describing the beloved entrepreneur as a "visionary asshole" and a ruthless businessman (in all fairness, that portrayal is apparently not untrue).

The show has become so inextricably linked with its creator that it's odd to see it performed by an actor playing the role of Mike Daisey. Indeed, during the talkback following the performance, many audience members continued to address Sandri as though he himself had written the monologue, despite his repeated attempts to set them straight.

Daisey is a talented writer, and Sandri makes the most of the role, clearly relishing the words he's been given to deliver. He gives a charismatic performance, and because of him the material is even more entertaining then it probably has any right to be. The monologue tends to hammer home its points, and it can at times feel like a lecture.

Most of the cut material consisted of Daisey's supposed one-on-one interactions with the factory workers, including underage children and an elderly man whose hands had been mangled by the machinery he operated, and by all accounts those were the original monologue's most powerful moments. In version 2.0, those moments have been reduced to brief, generalized mentions of crowds of workers eager to share their stories, though we never hear them. It's not hard to see why Daisey chose to add those fabricated anecdotes. It's difficult to judge without having seen that original production, but learning what was excised from the monologue's text helps pinpoint exactly what it feels like the show is now missing: the human heart at the center of Daisey's entire argument.

A large screen above the stage projects motion graphics and title cards throughout the piece. The images can be somewhat on the nose (at one point, a skull is superimposed over the Apple logo), but the effect goes a long way in helping break up the monologue, which would otherwise simply be a sea of words crashing over the audience. It's a canny staging decision on the part of the show's production team.

A proverb shown on the screen as the show opens boils down the ultimate idea behind the show: "If you want to enjoy a good steak, don't visit the slaughterhouse." It's clearly Daisey's hope to wake people up, asking us why so many don't know how their precious things are made, or if we simply made a conscious decision not to think about it. While it's hard to argue with Daisey's assertion that it's important that people acknowledge these realities, as the Shenzhen factory, and others like it, have gotten widespread coverage in the media since the monologue was first produced, it's less clear how much of an impact his words can still have.

In its current version, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" often feels like an intriguing, well-intentioned experiment rather than a wholly satisfying evening of theater. However, judging by the reaction during that post-performance Q&A, many in the audience seemed to be unaware of Apple's production practices, so clearly the monologue continues to serve its purpose, educating the public and shining a light on the true, unseen (or ignored) cost of our materialistic, gadget-driven culture.

Remi Sandri in "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs," now on stage at Geva Theatre Nextstage. PHOTO BY CHRIS HOLDEN

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