REVIEW ‌ Mike Daisey’s Monopoly! 

Daisey’s return to Spoleto is smarter, fact-packed, and funny, but could use more sincere connection with the audience.

The New York Times called Monopoly! “relentlessly interesting,” and that’s the truth. It’s captivating. Daisey’s fascination with historical figures, biographies, and tidbits are apparent, as is his admitted geekiness. The main difference between Monopoly! and last year’s The Ugly American, however, is that Monopoly!’s incredibly riveting, but it doesn’t have the beautiful, tug-at-your-heartstrings relatability of last year’s production. If you didn’t see The Ugly American (or if you’re more inclined to the factually engaging than the emotional kind), that little lacuna just may be imperceptible. But otherwise, you’ll notice the difference. Monopoly! is a bit more complex, a bit more cynical, and a bit more weighty. But that weight is not in its profound emotion as it was in The Ugly American.

True to his form as an absolute master storyteller, Daisey juggles the stories of Nikola Tesla and his war with Thomas Edison, Microsoft’s monopoly of software, the history of the board game Monopoly, and Wal-Mart taking over Daisey’s hometown in Maine. Daisey’s stories are perfectly woven together. He and director Jean-Michelle Gregory have crafted in his structure a brilliant mirror of the thought he delivers in the beginning of the piece: “I don’t like endings.” As he goes through each story, interweaving them, the transitions are humorously abrupt. He leaves each short segment at a high point — just as you’re expecting to hear what happens next in the exciting story — moving on to continue where he left off in a different story.

One thing that he’s done, like all good geeks, is he’s taken for granted that his audience understands electricity enough to know about alternating and direct currents, and to know what a Tesla coil is when he makes it a pretty big punchline. (Incidentally, it’s “a lightning-throwing death machine.”) He does eventually ask, however, “does anyone really know how electricity works?”

On a few occasions, Daisey tells us to go home and Google something he’s just told us, to verify its authenticity (an ironic endorsement given that Google has monopolized the realm of search engines). Everything he relates is so compelling that most likely, the majority of people will go home afterwards and look it all up. Daisey is incredibly smart — not just in his wealth of knowledge, but in his comedic skills, as well. In predictable setups, he makes completely unexpected jokes. His are the funniest deliveries of some major swearing, also (which may be more than some of the older patrons in the audience were expecting). His gestures and expressions are enough to make people laugh even without dialogue. He furrows his brow in frustration, and he sculpts the air in front of him with his hands as if it were clay, grasping with his hands in emphasis.

The most amazing thing about Daisey and his performances is that he is the anomaly of solo performers. Usually, when a one-man performance delves too much into personal experience, the production can quickly grow boring and self-indulgent. Daisey is the opposite. While the tales of Tesla’s failures and the shadiness of Parker Brothers are so engaging they make your jaw drop, Daisey is at top form when he’s talking about himself and his family. Those are the stories that pack the punch, more so than the ones about all the other people.

Monopoly! is a tad long — even Daisey’s energy seems to fade by the end. And something strange happens at the end (at least in Saturday’s performance — but each performance is different since Daisey works from notes), where one wonders if they’ve just missed a piece of dialogue or if he left something out. Even though you can feel the ending coming on, the last couple lines feel like they should’ve had something else before it. The effect is one of slight confusion, and the intended power of the closing line doesn’t get communicated.

He says it himself — he started out with the intent of doing a lecture on Nikola Tesla. He could use a little more heart to take it from a brilliant entertaining production that feels lecture-y to a production that really leaves people thinking about the lasting effects of monopolies, obsessions, and greed on the little guy.

Monopoly! • Spoleto Festival USA’s Solo Turns Series • $22 • June 5 at 7 p.m. • Emmett Robinson Theatre, Albert Simons Center, 54 St. Philip St. • 579-3100


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