Mike Daisey is one of those rare people who can talk incessantly about himself with true charm. Unlike other self-styled "storytellers," he not only knows what makes a good story, he knows how to make that story good theater. The narratives that make up his first one-man show, the autobiographical Wasting Your Breath, are subversive of our expectations, moving forward, doubling back, and always working to transform his relation to his audience.
I Miss the Cold War/Wasting Your Breath
Odd Duck Studio, May 28-June 20, in repertory
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Another part of his appeal is his openness about his own failings and defects; at one point in Breath,he admits that at one time he was so depressed that for days on end he just lay on his bed jamming out to "Born in the USA" over and over again. The entire show, as a matter of fact, is in some ways an apologia for why he left his ex-girlfriend and their new baby to strike out for the Wild West of Seattle.
Similarly, his new piece, I Miss the Cold War, is the chronicle of a failure, of his inability first to write the piece he had intended, and of his ongoing failure to talk with his father about his war experiences. "I went back to Maine for Christmas, where my father runs a veteran's center," says the large but dauntingly energetic actor/writer. "All my life I've wanted to do a piece of theater about veterans. I've been talking about it for years, talking to my father and other people. But I was never sure what my motives for wanting to do it were. I know now that a big part of it was wanting to appease my father."
Daisey grew up on stories about the men that his father treated. "He'd come home from work late, and I'd stay up and have a second dinner while he ate, and he'd tell me all these stories about the people he was treating, what their lives were like and how they were doing. In some ways it was like a very macabre soap opera, because you could follow them from night to night. I'd spend my days wondering how his veterans were responding to treatment, and worrying about the people who would give their guns to my father to store in our cellar. It became a central obsession of my life."
So in what he calls a very "vulturey" fashion, Daisey prepared to interview a bunch of veterans to gather material for his second show. "My first show is all about me, and apart from the events of Wasting Your Breath,my life isn't all that fascinating. So I figured I'd better find some good stories for new material." But when he returned to Seattle, he found that he wasn't capable of actually making the stories his own. "I would try to tell their stories, and they would just jam in my throat." Eventually his own reticence to deal with the material became what he was interested in. "A large part of this show is about why I can't do the show I wanted to do about my father, about the weird walls between us regarding his own experiences in Vietnam."
Intermixed with these stories of war is the story of Daisey's recent trip to Poland. "I fell in love, she went to Poland, so I took all my money and flew there for two and a half weeks to make sure I was really in love. That all turned out wonderfully, but it was immensely strange for me to be in this Eastern bloc country that had been so much a dark place in my imagination for so long."
In some ways Poland turned out to be even stranger than he had imagined: He tells of how the vodka-deficient Poles drink toilet cleanser, which does the job but has the side effect of eventually making you blind. "The Polish have this toast that goes, 'Drink quickly, it's getting dark.'" The former Communist government, instead of getting more vodka, put poison in the cleanser. "That didn't stop them. Poles were dropping left and right, so finally the government stopped putting the poison in. You've got to admire that stubbornness, as well as any country that has an anthem that begins, 'Poland, Poland, we haven't been conquered yet.'"
As to the new show's title, Daisey admits that he really does miss the Cold War. "It's not a good nostalgia, but I miss the absolutism. I miss the romantic and false atmosphere of John Le Carré books and meeting under bridges and that moment that you realize that people are coming to kill you, but it's too late. I miss the idea of good and evil, the duality of two sides fighting. A lot of my Catholic upbringing was transplanted into my political belief of saints and demons. As a teenager I would get really obsessive about movies like Red Dawn and War Games. I would wonder, 'Would I turn the key that started the missiles? Could I? Would it be a good thing?'"
Daisey is running the two shows in repertory, which he realizes leads to comparisons, as well as charges of rampant egoism. "Two one-man autobiographical shows: My fear is that people will say, 'Jesus, Daisey. Put it back in your pants and go home! But the reaction to Breath was so positive that I wanted to put it up again, and I had to have another piece too, to show that it wasn't just a one-hit wonder." He's channeled some of his energies into another development, a new sketch comedy group called Uppin' Your Grill that runs late nights during the mainstage shows. "There's nothing lonelier than working on your own one-person show. You write something, you take it still unfinished in front of a group of your friends, and they say, 'You were funny last week, you were touching the week before, and now you're just dull.' Despite the rush of performing a one-man show, writing and working with other people is a real joy."
Cold War links