Mike Daisey’s MONOPOLY!

I never cease to be struck by how good a story can be.
When told well, it doesn’t matter if you know how the tale will end, because the pleasure is in seeing how the storyteller connects the dots in the telling. MONOPOLY! is a blend of interesting asides, placed so perfectly early on in the tale, that when they all converge it feels inevitable and startlingly fresh at the same time. On its surface, the piece revolves around the dominance of corporate monopolies – Parker Brothers over the Monopoly game’s Quaker inventor, Microsoft over the software industry, Edison over Tesla – a twisted sort of David and Goliath struggle, where the giant always wins. But with incredible charisma, Mike Daisey leads the audience along his circuitous narrative, enlarging the scope of these ideas and deftly pushing his monologue to much more complex conclusions.
Much of the power is in his delivery. Daisey has an undoubted gift for compelling writing, but as in a symphony, movements are connected not just through common themes, but also through their phrasing and tone. In each thread of his performance, Daisey returns to a few striking gestures and coy turns-of-phrase that give a knowing wink at the audience as they begin to draw parallels. A simple question he was asked when staging this monologue’s forerunner (“What do you need to realize your vision?”) becomes a common refrain that pops up in each story. His sweeping, blustery gesticulations unify the entire show, but smaller movements, like a hand dividing his face in two, help to link his personal narratives from different points in his life. Each time the audience recognizes one of these symbols, the scale of the performance enlarges.

Daisey has a great American voice that speaks of values to which we might aspire, but always remains populist and genuine enough as to never condescend. He personalizes obscure historical details and always portrays his characters with a vivid humanity. Each of the threads of Daisey’s monologue have an incredible gravity – they pull the listener in until nothing exists outside of his current storyline. When he begins to speak about the birth of the board game, it becomes the only story you ever want to hear again. That is, until he returns to the tale of the Tesla/Edison rivalry, or the story of his family hometown, or that part about experimental theater in New York, or…
As a storyteller, Daisey has a keen knowledge that the truth of a good yarn may differ from the facts. It is an understanding that serves him well in his persistent detective work as he dusts off the forgotten details of commonly known tales. At times, his delivery sounds like a passionate amateur historian railing against the injustices of the textbooks’ omissions. MONOPOLY! was full of so many shockingly-new ideas and footnotes to history, that I ended up spending a good chunk of the next morning Googling his claims (Verdict? All true if the internet is to be believed). For Daisey, a monologue is not just a theatrical exercise, it is the product of his true love of ideas. Daisey’s website (which reads as a visual-conceptual notebook of current events and ideas) gives a glimpse into the devoted omnivorousness of this man’s mind. Exploring the site, you can imagine that he’ll one day draw these disparate snippets together into a sharply persuasive piece.
And MONOPOLY! shows just how Daisey will do it. For even as Daisey clearly and forcefully speaks in this performance about the impact of corporate monopolies, he is also delivering a monologue about ideas. And about games. And about death. If you can keep up with all of his thoughts, it becomes clear that we’ve learned the rules that dictate our lives and yet, we can’t beat the game without overcoming death. But ideas, through patents, can have legacies long after their inventor’s demise and corporations, once crafted in man’s image, have overstepped the rules that govern our lives and ended up with the power to outgrow and outlive us. His piece has a Matryoshka-doll-effect, wherein ideas are nestled inside ideas, the smallest of which are no less developed than the largest. While you can unpack each concept alone, their meanings resonate best in relation to one another.
-posted by patrick leonard

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