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Open: 01/31/12- Close: 03/04/12 The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs
Reviewed for By: Heather Violanti

Joan Marcus ©2020  Mike Daisey in The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, created and performed by Mike Daisey and directed by Jean-Michele Gregory, running at The Public Theater.

To evoke a key theme in Mike Daisey’s THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS, the metaphor is shifting.  Thanks in part to Daisey’s monologue, Americans are waking up to the fact that our beloved iPhones, iPads, iMacs, and other electronics are made at the horrific cost of human life, in cramped factories by workers as young as 12, where it is not unknown for workers to endure 34 hour shifts, where there are nets strung from the tops of buildings to prevent suicides, where workers lose use of their limbs, or their lives, after exposure to such toxins as hexane and aluminum dust.  The factories are in China; but American corporations—including Apple—helped make them possible, and turned a blind eye in the name of profit.

Over the last eighteen months, Daisey has performed the monologue in 17 cities and adapted it for NPR’s This American Life—the January 6th broadcast was the most downloaded in the show’s history.  He’s helped sparked a revolution, and the momentum is growing.  About one week after his NPR broadcast, Apple announced it would publish a list of its suppliers for the first time and agreed to independent monitoring of factories they use.   On January 25th, the New York Times published a damning in-depth report: The Human Costs for Workers in China on the harrowing conditions at the Chinese plants that supply goods to Apple.

Now, after an acclaimed and controversial run in the fall—the show opened in New York just days after Steve Jobs’ death—THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS returns to the Public Theater for a five week run.  The show offers a harrowing, and, incredibly, darkly humorous glimpse into the agony and the ecstasy of Steve Jobs as he created Apple…and Mike Daisey as he learned the truth behind the manufacture of his favorite electronics.

The show begins with a joke.  A tinny computer voice—akin to the one used by Stephen Hawking—admonishes the audience to turn off their cell phones while a grid of LED lights flashes onstage.   The house goes dark; things get serious.  The lights come up to reveal Daisey, somberly dressed in all black and evoking Spalding Gray, seated at a simple table adorned with just a glass of water, a pile of notes on yellow legal paper, and a black cloth to wipe the sweat from his forehead.   In his booming, Orson Welles-meets-Nathan-Lane voice, Daisey begins to tell us of his visit to a Hong Kong slum, where fake iPhones are strung up like fish, sold by a man who doubles as digital pirate, eager to steal codes from the real thing. 

Daisey’s monologue shifts sharply and unpredictably in tone and focus.  His story veers from solemnity to humor, from Chinese factories to his American childhood, from Steve Jobs’ dropping out of college to his triumphant return to Apple after being ousted years earlier.  You never know where he’s going to go next—part of his extemporaneous style—but somehow, it all fits together.  Daisey’s reputation as a “master storyteller” is well-deserved.  He can make the audience erupt in laughter—as when he bursts into an imitation of a dot matrix printer—or stun them into silence, as when he dares them to visualize the true enormity—and horror—of the electronics factories he visited.  Director Jean-Michele Gregory orchestrates the shift in tone and emotion with equal mastery.  The only thing that undercuts the work’s power is a tendency, particularly near the evening’s end, for Daisey to emphasize salient points with a hushed, paused intonation, like a lecturer reminding his students they’d better listen.   This doesn’t take away from the horror of what Daisey reveals, or the importance of the information, but it can seem, at times, just a tad too predictable in a work that otherwise avoids the expected.

THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF STEVE JOBS will change the way you view your computer, your cell phone, your world.  It is not only a theatrical event, it’s a call to action.

Public Theater : 425 Lafayette Street