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Regional Reviews by Gil Benbrook

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs
Actors Theatre


Ron May
American playwright, monologist and performer Mike Daisey created quite a stir in 2010 with his one man show The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The ninety minute monologue delves into the history of technology giant Apple, its co-founder and former CEO Steve Jobs, and the specifics of how many of the world's electronics, including products from Apple, are made in China under harsh work environments. Daisey and his play won accolades for the powerful storytelling and the ability to make us think about just what goes into making our electronic devices. While it was later revealed that Daisey exaggerated or dramatized a few of the items, facts and encounters in his monologue, it is still a stirring analysis of the world's fascination with technology and the cost that allure entails. Actors Theatre presented the play back in the Fall of 2012 and they've brought the show back for a return engagement for a few performances this month as part of their Summer Series. Ron May, the Founding Artistic Director of Stray Cat Theatre, who starred in the previous production, returns for this encore presentation.

According to Daisey, about half of the electronics made in the world are manufactured in one single factory complex in Shenzhen, China by a company called Foxconn. While most of us think everything today is made by machines, that is actually not the case, as the low cost of wages in China means thousands of hands are working, essentially around the clock, to make the latest "must have" electronic gadget. The stories of the inhumane working conditions of these workers in China, and the details of Daisey's visit to Shenzhen make up the "agony" in the title of the play. Daisey's passionate words tell of over 400,000 workers in China, some working 12-16 hours a day, at low wages, doing repetitive motions with their hands that make them virtually useless within ten years. A series of suicides, with workers jumping off the top of the large Foxconn buildings in Shenzhen, can only be assumed to be attributed to the conditions of working at Foxconn.

But Daisey effectively balances the horror stories of the workers with the fascinating story of Apple and the rise, fall and rise again of Steve Jobs and the world's fascination with the sleekly designed products from Apple. The humorous tales of the mystical, God-like Jobs, and of our intense focus on having latest and greatest electronic gadgets form the "ecstasy" in the play's title. These humorous and absorbing stories counter the dramatic tales of the workers in Shenzhen to form an illuminating piece that really makes you think about everything that goes into making that electronic device in your hand, pocket or purse. Daisey obviously wants to raise awareness of the inhumane working conditions in China, and alternating the story of his trip to Shenzhen with the story of Apple's success culminates in a play that resonates with tech heads, geeks and just about anyone who has ever wondered what went into making their phone and other devices. Though, for those less tech savvy, or those less familiar with Apple and Jobs, it might be just a bit boring. This production, like the one two years back, is the edited version of the play that eliminates the fabricated items that Daisey admitted to making up. And, while the majority of Daisey's verbiage is focused on Apple, he does mention several times that Apple isn't the only company involved in the manufacturing of products in China in grim working conditions.

Ron May is splendid as Daisey, with an intense, natural delivery of the words that makes you believe May himself actually visited Foxconn and had intimate details of the creation of Apple. I have no idea if May is actually a self-proclaimed geek, techie or Apple product aficionado who takes his MacBook apart to clean every piece in detail, as Daisey admits to doing in the monologue, but based on May's intense, realistic performance, I'm prepared to have him help me with all of my computer needs. May also relishes the humor in the script, with a spirited delivery of the comic lines as well as a nice ability to use different voices to portray the various characters in the piece, such as Apple's co-founder Steve Wozniak. It is an impressive performance.

Matthew Wiener's direction allows the clear storytelling and May's performance to flow naturally, with appropriate movement around the stage when necessary. Tim Monson's lighting design is simple and clean, providing a nice balance of light that complements Daisey's stories and May's performance.

Daisey's play is a funny, sharp and pointed monologue, and the combination of Daisey's words and May's delivery form an immersive exploration of Apple, Jobs and our focus on technology. It might make you feel a bit uncomfortable and make you think a little differently the next time you go to look at your phone, laptop or any fancy electronic item, which is exactly what Daisey was attempting to do. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs and Ron May's outstanding performance tell a tale that will slowly gnaw away at you and really make you think.

The Actors Theatre production of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs plays again on July 12th and July 23rd, 2014 at the Black Theatre Troupe/Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, at 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix. Tickets can be ordered at http://actorstheatrephx.org/ or by calling (602) 888-0368

Director: Matthew Wiener
Costume Design: Lois K. Myers
Lighting Design: Tim Monson
Sound Design: Christopher Neumeyer
Cast
Ron May


Photo: John Groseclose

--Gil Benbrook


Also see the Current Theatre Season Calendar for Phoenix



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