Dallas — “Why Shakespeare?” It’s a question on which premiere monologist Mike Daisey muses during his mesmerizing solo show called The Great Tragedies.
In this first of four performances, which opened Thursday as a part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Off Broadway on Flora series, he dealt with Romeo and Juliet. The other three performances, happening in Hamon Hall at the Winspear Opera House, are devoted to Hamlet (Friday), Macbeth (Saturday matinee) and King Lear (Saturday night).
Daisey provides an answer to the above question and many, many more that touch on themes of love, youth, tragedy and comedy, literature, philosophy, art, and poetry filtered through lenses both universal and (mostly) personal—all told in his engaging style that weaves in his thoughts about the Bard’s romantic tragedy with anecdotes about his own life.
Using only a simple set of a wooden table and chair with a single glass of water (untouched on Thursday night), Daisey performs his two-hour piece extemporaneously, relying merely on a sparse outline of notes jotted on loose sheets from a yellow legal pad. He’s charming in a curmudgeonly way, and, most importantly passionate and sincere about his topic.
Daisey’s central premise about R&J is that it’s a young play for the young about bad choices. He also contends that the play does not moralize about the young lovers but sort of “enshrines them,” and that they are either “fated, unlucky or dumb.” In general, Daisey sees Shakespeare’s plays as open-ended or unfinished, and as blueprints that people can use to make them relevant to themselves and their time. His observations about Friar Laurence and Mercutio are particularly funny.
Just so you don’t think this is some stuffy lit theory lecture, Daisey peppers in neologistic phrases like “fiery, weasel-sex love” and other colorful phrases. He also pokes fun at Texas because of our politicians and policies (No Child Left Behind), and our penchant to freak out over a few inches of snow (he is from Northern Maine). Point taken.
Daisey’s talk is not just about Shakespeare or Romeo and Juliet. He uses episodes from his own life to illustrate and elucidate his points. A testament to his skill as a master storyteller is his uncanny ability to seemingly go off-topic with anecdotes to the point that the listener, engaged in the stories, has almost forgotten the theme. Then he brings it all back together.
It’s a strange and wonderful magic.
The well-worn cliché that Daisey is the kind of man you would want to have a long pub conversation with is not quite apt because you wouldn’t want to have interruptions or distractions; just some “fat and garrulous man (who loves William Shatner in a not-ironic way) who will summarize” on a bare stage all this knowledge and art for us.
And that’s just what happens.
Although I did not see the Hamlet entry on Friday because of icy roads, I did catch both of the shows on Saturday. Here are more thoughts:
Macbeth (Saturday, Feb. 28, 2 p.m.)
Being in the theater in the middle of the day is a place no one should be. So claims monologist Mike Daisey from his perch onstage during the third part of his The Great Tragedies series. That is to say, theater deals with "dark things" better reserved for nighttime spaces, especially a play like William Shakespeare's Macbeth (a title, following theater tradition, Daisey never invokes during the performance). "The Scottish Play," according to Daisey, is a "cursed, broken, unfinished, and magic thing" that has a "psychic stink" about it.
It is Mackers' darkness, and corruptive and corrosive qualities that Daisey explores during his talk, that like the other iterations in his series uses liberal amounts of his personal experiences to bolster the narrative while penetrating questions about the play. Much more of Mike Daisey comes through in this performance, but that's okay because he's really interested in "how these plays live for us today," and because Daisey himself is just so damn compelling.
King Lear (Saturday, Feb. 28, 8 p.m.)
“And so it comes to…this,” Daisey intones with finality at the beginning of his last performance in his series The Great Tragedies. Daisey’s theme for the evening is Shakespeare’s latest, best, most “perfect” tragedy, what he contends as the “heart” of the form, King Lear. He considers the play itself to be about winter and old age; it’s the “frozen earth and the grave,” a tragedy of our future.
In typical Daisey style, he characterizes Lear as “black on black with shadings of black and outlined with black” where nothing good happens. However, like all tragedies, it is a map that “tells us how we live” and becomes “part of our mythology.”
Again, in characteristic Daisey fashion he wrangles with the play by distilling it through his own life experiences: being a “weird, misanthropic, and precocious child,” parents as “assholes” (a dominant theme in Lear), and his first meaningful encounter with a really old person.
Although Daisey often deems himself as “disagreeable” (leave your rah-rah patriotism and love of Texas at home before attending a Daisey talk), he’s still a loveable rogue who is deeply passionate about Shakespeare, the arts, and how theater should move and teach us. It would be quite difficult to come away from one (or three in my case) of these performances without feeling like you had learned something about Daisey, a little about the Bard, and a lot about ourselves as human beings even as he rails at and insults us.
He’s a modern, storytelling gadfly who stings us into seeing truths, whether we want to or not. We are, to quote Tennyson’s “Ulysses” (as Daisey did in his first talk):
“One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
» Read an interview with Daisey conducted by local solo performer John Michael Colgin here