Sunday, February 26, 2012

"The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs"- A Powerful Mixture of Humor and Truth

Review by Judd Hollander
Photo by Kevin Berne

If you want to enjoy a good steak, don't visit the slaughterhouse. An old American proverb mentioned in the show program of the solo piece The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, as brilliantly performed by Mike Daisey at the Public Theater. In between Daisey's nostalgic and humorous tale of Apple Computer and its founder, Steve Jobs, Daisey also ends up telling a tale you may not want to hear.

A storyteller and self-described computer geek, Daisey's idea of relaxation includes field-stripping his computer when he's on the road, or checking out the latest on-line rumors, gossip and computer articles regarding upcoming technical innovations. A lover of all things Apple, and a worshipper at the altar of Steve Jobs, Daisey does admit to straying at times, noting "I've spent time with a P.C., but haven't we all"? Daisey also tips his hat to Jobs' business acumen, acknowledging the man was a genius for his ability to create an entire universe of products people simply could not live without. Ones they never even knew they needed before Jobs introduced them.

Yet if Daisey has done his job, no audience member will ever look at a computer the same way again; a seemingly innocuous series of events leading him to uncover Apple's dirty little secret. That just about every piece of the company's technological innovations is made not by soullessly efficient machines, but rather by hand. In a massive factory in a province in China to be specific, often by people working 16-hour shifts and who can be much younger than 18 years old. Daisey learned these facts and others, such as the high suicide rate among the workers, by traveling to China and talking to those who labored on the assembly lines. He also met with factory officials and, through the use of a bit of chicanery and deception, was able to see both the public and hidden side of the assembly process.

However The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is not meant to be a searing indictment against big business through a burst of idealism, but rather an offering of information in an attempt to remove blinders the audience never realized they had on in the first place. Daisey also avoids the trap of so many message theatre pieces; that of hitting the audience over the head with the same point time and again. Instead he also fills his story with numerous moments combining humor and familiarity, pointing out issues all computer users can relate to. Such as the problem of forced upgrades, "just when you have everything on your computer synched the way you like it," or Jobs' habit of discontinuing one popular product and replacing it with another, leaving the faithful no choice but to follow him to the next big thing. It's Daisey's amiability and quiet manner that gives him a sort of everyman quality, making him the prefect guide on this sometimes sobering journey. Daisey also talks directly to the audience at points, discussing theatre and its cultural impact while charting Jobs' rise, fall and rise again in the world of Apple. One of the funniest moments in the play occurs when Daisey imagines what it was like when Apple executives asked Jobs to return to the fold and save the company, after his being previously forced out.

Direction by Jean-Michele Gregory is quite good, letting the story unfold under Daisey's cadence, with moments shifting from the hysterically funny to the quite serious and back again. The lighting by Seth Reiser is nicely appropriate - though there's an interesting reason for the techniques used, as the show explains.

Funny, shocking, and at times painful to hear, The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is a story that all computer lovers, human rights advocates and everyone else should make a point of seeing. Daisey notes at one point how people often bemoan the fact that so many things aren't made by hand anymore. Correcting this assumption, Daisey explains that there are indeed more items made by hand today than by machines. It's just not something people really like to think about.

The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs
Created and performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory
Scenery and Lighting Design: Seth Reiser
Production Stage Manager: Alison DeSantis

The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Tickets: or 212-967-7555 or
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes, no intermission

Closes: March 18, 2012

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