07 June 2015

The Agony and the Ecstacy of Steve Jobs, by Mike Daisy

I did not think The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs was the kind of play I would enjoy. Because I'm not interested in Jobs or Apple, I didn't think it was for me. But theatre played that trick it so often does, and I really enjoyed Mike Daisey's monologue play, which I saw the MT Pockets Theatre in Morgantown, WV.

The young Steve Jobs

You see, the show is much more than a discussion of Steve Jobs, the persona who loomed large over Apple and its legions of followers (he writes on an HP laptop running Windows). It is more than a fanboy's idolization. Though it is both of these things. In part. But the core of the show is an attempt to turn our eyes inward and outward simultaneously--to get people in the US and the West generally to be more cognizant of the role technology plays in our daily lives and the real human costs that the production of these devices entails. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is a show about a ruthless capitalist and technological genius, and the brutality of working conditions in Chinese manufacturing plants in Shenzen, China, where most of the world's electronics are now made. The stories, related through Daisey's monologues about conversations he had with Chinese workers are dystopian--massive factories working around the clock, workers kept in dormitories in beds even the small Chinese workers need to slide into, performing the same mechanical repetitions rapidly over and over and over until workers' hands are ruined, beatings, jail, and the continual surveillance. These are factories that had to put up nets around the outside of buildings to keep workers from leaping to their deaths.

A Foxconn factory building with anti-suicide nets
Chinese workers assembling technology by hand in a massive work room in Foxconn

 The production by MT Pockets, directed by David Beach, broke up Daisey's one person monologue between nine actors, who, while each monologuing did interact with one another minimally--things like borrowing iPhones, gesturing to one another, and pointing to one actor in each of the two acts who represented Jobs himself (when not monologuing). Fittingly, for a play about technology, the show incorporated a dizzying array of devices, from the old 1980s Apple and modern Mac desktop that featured in the scenery, to various iPods, iPhones, iPads, and laptops the monologuists pulled from pockets or borrowed from one another. On a largely plain black set one of the exceptions to the bareness was the large television screen, which provided the title of each monologue and some background images to help the audience visualize what was being discussed--images like the gates of Chunking Mansions (a king of Blade Runner style city in Shenzen, PRC), the gates of Foxconn, Chinese workers on the line at an Apple factory, etc.

The individual performances were largely strong, with each actor dressed in a variation of Steve Jobs' trademark jeans and black turtleneck. There were some stumbles and flubbed lines in the opening monologue, but after that the performers fell into a good rhythm. For my money, monologue is one of the hardest types of performance because there's no dialogue partner the catch you if you fall or miss a line. But these performers were very good. I would say the stand out performers were Travis Teffner (performing "The World Before") and Shenendoah Thompson (performing "The Second Coming"). These actors brought a fantastic energy and vibrancy to their performances, giving us a true sense of the intensity The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is capable of building to. Other great performances were given by Tawnya Drake, Sean Marko, Mara Monaghan, Tracy Nicole Lynch, and Chris Adducchio.

One result of the Steve Jobs uniforms worn in performance was that costuming became almost a non-factor (or rather, so ubiquitously Jobsian that it simply existed in the space without one needing to consciously pay attention to it). The upshot of this was that much more attention and weight was given to individual performers' facial expressions, intonation, and inflection. In this sense one of the strongest performances was given by Sean Marko (performing "The Gates of Foxconn"), who was on the verge of tears as he told the story of a Chinese worker who committed suicide by leaping from the Foxconn factory building after losing an iPhone prototype. The worker had been beaten and interrogated, and was going to be sent to prison. Marko's performance shifted quickly and effortlessly from the hyperbolic (a device pointed to self-consciously in the show) to genuine sorrow, pity, and empathy for the worker whos only best option was suicide.

For a moving and eloquent condemnation of global capitalism, and a jarring look at the consequences of our own fascination with technology, you can't go wrong with The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. And always support your local theatre.