“Brecht is a very challenging ‘Jeopardy’ question,” quipped a deadpan Mike Daisey at the start of the first in his series of four monologues, Great Men of Genius, at the Berkeley Rep thrust stage through July 1.
Daisey’s tossed-off line sets the tone of an evening the Village Voice fittingly characterized as “like a coked-up History Channel biography.”
Daisey presides, seated at a chair behind an old oblong wood table, with his pages of notes before him. There’s no other scenery, and Daisey doesn’t get up, except to exit at the end. A big man by his own admission—and frequent exploitation as material, like the picture he makes of himself doing the “Dead Man Float” in a rooftop swimming pool at a Hollywood hotel and the consternation that stirs it up—Daisy could be called ursine, amplifying the verbal action of his solo pieces with wide eyes that narrow, his large mouth, which even closed seems agape, and sweeping gestures with his hands.
When he jokes about himself in one of his frequent, seemingly off-subject autobiographical digressions, such as ranting about “Freedom of speech! Freedom of Speech!” (”before I burned out on dialogue!”) in a caffeine-induced, quixotic, one-man freshman crusade (and subsequent damage-control, accusatory “informal talk group” that he’s escorted to from his dorm), it doesn’t take an act of imagination to see it. Daisey’s stories seem to be pretty strictly non-fiction, albeit with trimmings.
His “lecture” on Brecht, first in a series which encompasses an unlikely gaggle that also includes showman P. T. Barnum, inventor Nicolai Tesla and science fiction writer-turned-Stalinoid of Dianetics, Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard, goes from beginning to end of “B. B.’s” peripatetic existence, fleeing always one step ahead of the Nazi invasion, finally across the beleaguered Soviet Union, and aboard ship to “the most improbable of possible” safe havens, Hollywood, where his career as a screenwriter ends when he’s called before HUAC, to which he talks evasively, a plane ticket to Switzerland in his pocket, as he misses the New York opening of his play Galileo, starring Charles Laughton (and directed by Joseph Losey, replacing an oft-considered Orson Welles).
The most touching and truest moment about Brecht comes up when Daisey describes the hurried productions of his political plays mounted during exile, that, although poorly attended, attract audiences of future resistance fighters, collaborators and the apolitical, who yet remember the communal sense of sitting together “for one moment ... in the crux of history, for a human conversation about what was happening in their times,” Brecht’s faith in theater (and poetry and song), and his testament to “those who will not live in dark times like these.”
Otherwise, Daisey’s glib, playing fast and loose with his subject, banking shots off the sloppy myths about “alienation effect” and out-of-context speculations that constitute whatever’s popular knowledge of Brecht—a figure Daisey talks of from the start as hazy to most. Increasingly he rambles through his college days in retrospect, his student drama productions, meeting his wife and collaborator (director Jean-Michele Gregory), and their spat over his “sell-out” 40-minute, upbeat showcase performance of a previously 90-minute, darkly satirical piece for a Hollywood exec crowd, in hopes of getting cast. It’s his stock-in-trade, fusing the quick hits of the post-adolescent wiseguy with the reflective, sentimentally sarcastic nostalgia of the middle-aging college boy.
His style will probably find more amicable company with less challenging, more boffo figures as Barnum and Hubbard. Nonetheless, judging from previous appearances in previous monologic outings, Daisey’s decision to focus on a figure other than his own, gradually edging out his subject with the backwash of his own subjectivity, dilutes his effectiveness as solo performer, garbling his formula of recounting autobiographical episodes, then digressing in whimsically amusing “asides” when he takes on a broader subject that surfaces from his personal musings. The technique’s flexibly plastic, but limited in range, more from contemporary stand-up or sketch comedy than “performance art,” or the tradition of the dramatic or literary raconteur.
GREAT MEN OF GENIUS
Through June 30 at Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St. $30-$75. 647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org.
Photograph by Ursa Waz
Mike Daisey in Great Men of Genius.