Tragedy is one of the basic genres of drama, even if today it’s a term used mainly when talking about William Shakespeare or the ancient Greeks. According to Aristotle, tragedy inherently involves a reversal of fortune due to the hero making a terrible mistake. Bad stuff happening to you isn’t sufficient to make it a tragedy. Ultimately your downfall has to be your fault.

Public radio listeners know monologist Mike Daisey primarily for just such a mistake. In early 2012, This American Life aired portions of his monologue The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs in which he recounted his trip to a Chinese factory where Apple products are manufactured. But it soon came to light that Daisey had made up certain details of his trip, taking the kind of poetic license that’s usual for a play but unethical when transplanted into a journalistic context where details must be factual and verifiable. This led to not just a retraction of the popular episode, but a full-length follow-up primarily about how pissed off host Ira Glass was about the incident, calling Daisey out on not just his initial poor judgment but for compounding the issue by not fessing up when first confronted with the discrepancies.

But Bay Area theater audiences know Daisey for much more — and much better — than that. Daisey has long been a frequent visitor to Berkeley Repertory Theatre with many solo shows that deftly blend his ostensible topics with philosophical musings and long autobiographical tangents that both illuminate the main subject and underscore why he cares so deeply about it: first 21 Dog Years, about working at Amazon.com, then The Ugly American, Great Men of Genius, and finally The Last Cargo Cult in repertory with The Agony and the Ecstasy in 2010. Daisey has been back since then, but not at the Rep. He performed his American Utopias show at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts this May, and now he’s at California Shakespeare Theater with the world premiere of not one but four different shows, collectively titled The Great Tragedies, created especially to close the company’s 40th anniversary season.

Mike Daisey in The Great Tragedies at California Shakespeare Theater.
Mike Daisey in The Great Tragedies at California Shakespeare Theater

Presented on separate nights with just two performances apiece, each show takes on one of Shakespeare’s most popular tragedies — Romeo and Juliet on Thursdays, Hamlet on Fridays, Macbeth on Saturdays and King Lear on Sundays — a progression that escalates in maturity and seriousness.

Daisey’s an old hand at juggling multiple monologues at any given time, sometimes workshopping a new show during the run of another. Great Men of Genius at Berkeley Rep in 2007 was also four interconnected monologues about Bertolt Brecht, P.T. Barnum, Nikola Tesla and L. Ron Hubbard. Each could be easily enjoyed on its own, but deeper themes and connections emerged when you saw them all. That’s certain to be the case with this series as well.

The show is, as always, directed by Daisey’s wife, Jean-Michele Gregory, in an ongoing process of refinement. Daisey works with notes, not a script, and hones each narrative through the telling and retelling, in the time-honored tradition of storytellers everywhere. As seen at the first Thursday’s show about Romeo and Juliet, the set is entertaining in its own right. Onstage is just Daisey’s usual setup of a table, a chair and a glass of water, with no backdrop obscuring the trees and rolling hills behind him, but all around the outskirts of the seating area are heaps of Shakespearean props from past Cal Shakes productions. The mix of pre-show music is among the best I’ve ever heard, from growly punk cabaret to Icona Pop, Queen, Talking Heads and Richard Cheese. I swear, I feel like I need to get my hands on it as a mixtape.

Daisey doesn’t actually talk all that much about Romeo and Juliet in his show on that topic. He keeps coming back to the play in his dizzyingly digressive style, coming off of an extended aside to exactly the place that you’d forgotten it started. But first he has other things to get out of the way. He talks about how much a part of our common language Shakespeare has become, certainly our common theatrical language, and how one of the reasons there are so many unorthodox stagings is that we have this common understanding of what the plays are traditionally supposed to look like. He talks a lot about privilege, and about the swanky house he’s staying in while he’s here, “because that’s where nice people stay when they’ve come to talk to you about Shakespeare.” He notes that both he and his audience are doing pretty well, relatively speaking, but how tragedy comes for us all regardless of our various advantages. “That’s what I like about tragedy,” he says. “I like its inevitability.”

There are still some rough edges to the two-hour show, especially the ending, which relies on a long quotation in lieu of a conclusion. But by and large, Daisey strikes such a near-perfect balance between marvelous humor, unflinching self-examination and broad philosophical statements that he makes it easy to get behind, at least in the moment.

He celebrates the glorious messiness of Romeo and Juliet, and of Shakespeare in general — the plot points and crazed speeches that make no sense — and talks about his own early experiences playing Mercutio in a hilariously misguided college production. But most of all he talks about the stupid, senseless and destructive things you do as a young person in love, and how that fiery, infuriating, heedless passion is ultimately what R&J is about. “We are all too old to understand Romeo and Juliet,” Daisey says, and from the sound of it we’re all better for it.

When he does reflect on the play itself, it’s often to hysterical effect; his character assassination of Friar Lawrence is a thing of beauty. But the power of the show lies in Daisey’s poignant stories about his own early experiences with all-consuming passion and the disastrous consequences thereof. He’s not here to tell us about R&J, not really. We already know that story. What he wants us to do is really feel deep in our bones what it means to be that much in love when you can’t possibly be equipped to understand what you’re doing or what you’re getting into. But there’s no point in wishing that one big love crazy love had happened when you were ready for it and could handle it better, Daisey seems to be telling us, because immaturity is what makes that wild emotional abandon possible.

The Great Tragedies runs through October 12, 2014 at Bruns Amphitheater in Orinda. For tickets and information visit calshakes.org.

All photos by Jay Yamada.

Mike Daisey Dukes It Out with Shakespeare’s Tragedies 6 October,2014Sam Hurwitt

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Sam Hurwitt

Sam Hurwitt is a freelance theater critic for KQED Arts, the Marin Independent Journal and the San Jose Mercury News in addition to his own theater and culture blog, The Idiolect.  You can find him on Twitter cleverly camouflaged as shurwitt.

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