In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, the beleaguered ruler tells a supplicant: “I have known the story before you told it.” Mike Daisey makes a very similar remark in his monologue How Theater Failed America: “You should not have come,” he tells his audience. “You already know this story.” True, Daisey’s complaint about the state of regional theaters doesn’t offer many innovative arguments. (Nor does he describe a situation anywhere near as severe as the plague afflicting Oedipus‘s Thebes.) Yet we, like the Greeks who enjoyed seeing the Oedipus tale told again and again, don’t attend the theater simply for narrative novelty. Indeed, there’s a sickly sort of comfort in hearing Daisey enumerate the familiar offenses of the American stage—its corporatization, its aging audiences, etc. The monologue also offers a less tainted pleasure: Daisey’s acerbic history of his own theater career.
Daisey discusses choice bits from his actorly résumé—rather like Spalding Gray’s A Personal History of the American Theater. He recalls his appearances in Richard III, children’s shows, and a “tremendously fucked-up” production of Jean Genet’s The Balcony. In the meantime, he chides regional theaters for their sins: spending more money on new buildings than on new plays, importing artists from New York rather than cultivating local talent, failing to attract younger audiences. Daisey writes as a performer rather than an audience member: While he identifies the indignities that actors suffer—low pay, short rehearsal periods, scanty houses—this doesn’t necessarily explain how, or indeed why, theater has failed. Were actors paid a decent wage, were indigenous ones used, were rehearsal periods extended (all very humane notions), would that necessarily improve American theater? Would it attract a larger and more youthful audience?
From the first moment of the show, sweat moistens Daisey’s face. He dabs and mops at himself with a black handkerchief as he works himself into frequent lathers. Daisey favors an extreme emotionalism—laughing, shrieking, roaring throughout. Happily, he’s such an engaging performer and such a fine writer that he pulls it off. (Even if you don’t always agree with his arguments, you admire the sentences that form them.) Though theater may have failed, Daisey nicely succeeds.
Oedipus-aware Greek audiences might have a bit of trouble recognizing Sophocles’ tale amid the present-day locale and rock-and-roll detritus of Oedipus Loves You at P.S.122. In the opening moments, the Sphinx (Ned Dennehy), a naked man with his penis tucked genteelly between his legs, recites strange riddles. As a dance track blares, he sings: “Oh god. So hot. Sticky. Oh, I’m gonna puke.” Clearly, Dublin’s Pan Pan theater company is offering no cold-white-marble version of the classical drama. They’ve reset the tragedy to a Dublin suburb and turned Thebes’s royal family into a post-punk band. Also, they’ve reconfigured the seer Tiresias (Dennehy again) as a Freudian and plunged everyone into therapy.
Psychoanalysis has made so much use of the Oedipus legend, the show suggests, that perhaps Oedipus and company might benefit from psychoanalysis. A program note declares that the play “examines the metaphysical, political, and quasi-religious aspects of the Oedipus myth.” But this does the piece a great disservice: Pan Pan’s examination isn’t nearly as intellectual or academic as it is rapturously theatrical. Dennehy turns in a deliciously dissipated performance, and the rest of the cast provides strong supporting work, both dramatically and musically. Despite unpromising titles such as “Crackerass” and “Every Hardonne Needs Love,” the songs are quite good. Oedipus Rex? Perhaps. Oedipus rocks? Definitely.