The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Berkeley Rep

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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Mike Daisey in “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” at Berkeley Rep
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The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs

Monologue by Mike Daisey
Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory
Berkeley Repertory Theater
Jan. 23-Feb. 27, 2010
(See video clip below.)

It’s hilarious and heartbreaking. A passionate polemic in the best agitprop tradition, Mike Daisey’s “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” manages to reflect America in the throes of its love affair with technology while challenging us to examine the labor conditions under which our gadgets are manufactured, keeping its sense of humor all the while. Running at Berkeley Rep through February, in weekly repertory with “The Last Cargo Cult,” an examination of the banking industry and attendant crises, it should become a favorite with local audiences—although it wouldn’t hurt for those leaning more to the right to take a look as well.

Daisey, a master monologist in the manner of the late, great Spalding Gray, has characterized this as “the best work I have ever created” and he may be right. Gone are the Hawaiian shirts and manic mugging of some of his previous pieces, replaced by a sober black ensemble, the performer at a desk backlit by a wall of LED lights (Seth Reiser, designer) that is stunning but a little hard on the eyes after two hours. Daisey is deeply engaged with his material, but in a quiet and subtle way, as befits the subject matter.

His timing, of course, couldn’t have been worse. “Agony” opened hard on the heels of Steve Jobs’ real-world announcement that he was taking another leave of absence from Apple, again for reasons of health. Having survived cancer and a liver transplant, the brilliant—and Daisey makes no secret of his admiration for the man’s mind—Apple co-founder is again ill. And that makes this comic skewering of his personality and management style a bit of a sticky wicket. But Jobs is not the only target of Daisey’s verbal arrows. They are aimed at the tech industry as a whole—and those of us who adore our computers and phones and iPads and e-books and MP3s. And that’s just about everybody, right?

Shuttling back and forth between Silicon Valley, Seattle and Shenzhen, China, a mammoth industrial city of 18 million on the site of a former fishing village, Daisey recounts his own infatuation with everything tech. But, when he goes to China and sees how his beloved toys are manufactured—and especially by whom—it sends him reeling. Workers—some of them as young as 12—are crowded into concrete block dormitories, toiling for 12- and 18-hour days (sometimes not even getting overtime pay) and have been known to drop dead of exhaustion on the job. Enough of them have committed suicide by jumping from the factory rooftops to catch the attention of international rights groups and the press. According to Daisey, the response of one industry giant has been to put nets around the buildings to break the fall, its “version of corporate responsibility.”

As for Jobs, the send-up of his megalomaniac management style (“not so much micro as nano”) and controlling personality is mingled with a genuine respect for his genius by this technology-obsessed, self-proclaimed Apple acolyte. And some uncomfortable questions are posed. If technology is the new religion, where are the moral precepts underlying it? Are these tools for us to use or are the tools somehow using us? And, most important, what are we going to do about it? (As for the last, some suggestions are handed out by ushers at the exit doors.) It all goes on a little too long, but it is funny and provocative, if self-serving, of one man’s crusade. It has an effect. Next time you click on an icon, you may stop to wonder about the human cost of your device.

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