Theater review: 'Steve Jobs' at Amphibian

Posted 7:51pm on Friday, Apr. 26, 2013

Amphibian Stage Productions' decision to stage Mike Daisey's monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs is probably the boldest programming choice of any area theater this year. It would have been a natural for Amphibian's two-performance reading series, as the 85-minute production is essentially one man sitting at a table and talking to the audience, the only props being a MacBook and an ice-free glass of water.

But Daisey's first-person account of his trip to the mammoth Foxconn manufacturing plant in Shenzhen, China -- where the iPhone and other Apple products are made -- is too important a story; it needs to be seen in a longer run (in this case, three weeks).

At Amphibian, where the role of the monologuist is played by Steven Young under the direction of Jaime Castañeda, the tale is delivered in a riveting and frequently funny performance by an actor who exhibits as much passion for the material as Daisey does.

He lets us know up front that he is an avid technophile. He can't wait to get his hands on every new innovation and upgrade, and for him and many like him who are wowed by the combination of design and functionality, Apple is the drug that tech junkies can't get enough of. From there, the monologue weaves two main threads: the trip to Foxconn, where Daisey confirms his suspicions about harsh labor practices and working conditions; and the personal story of Jobs, the brilliant and ruthless innovator who founded Apple with code-writing genius Steve Wozniak, building what they started in a garage into the most profitable and one of the most recognizable brands on the planet.

Human foibles

Despite some setbacks after Daisey performed part of the play on NPR's This American Life and some details were revealed to have been embellished -- you could hear the heartbreak in Daisey's voice in the subsequent, retraction episode of TAL, when host Ira Glass grilled him on air -- the work is a compelling, utterly human brand of didacticism that reaches almost agitprop level simply through the power of passionate storytelling. (Daisey amended the script to address the post- TAL changes, although Castañeda has wisely cut those from this production. The problems of Foxconn are well-documented by many other sources.) The story can jump in nanoseconds from devastating reporting, as with a thread about nets being added around the lower perimeter of the tallest Foxconn building after workers started jumping to their deaths, to side-splitting comedy (i.e. the bit about PowerPoint presentations).

If you've never seen Daisey perform his monologues live, you can get a pretty good idea of the performances from the myriad videos out there. With another actor doing The Agony, the storyteller becomes more of a character, and Young, with his gestures and speech rate and patterns, is reminiscent of Daisey in many ways.

He spreads his hands out on the table, then clasps them and occasionally wrings them. And his delivery of the comic lines is dead-on; like Daisey, he drops these as angry rants rather than punch lines.

Castañeda has Young move from behind the desk a few times (he sits on it, or moves closer to audience members), and although it's welcome, it's not necessary. When there are lines as thought-provoking as "if you control the metaphor through which people see the world, you control the world" (referring to Apple's tech innovations), and such an obvious passion for storytelling and subject matter (Daisey) and performance (Young), the words and their delivery are all you need.

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