Barring the Unforeseen
nytheatre.com review by Matt Roberson
October 26, 2010
As any student of theatre has heard, the art of drama begins when one member of the tribe stands before the fire, unfolding a story with just their voice and body. While most theatre has moved away from this, at summer camps and around October fires everywhere, this most basic of traditions lives on. With Barring the Unforeseen, monologist Mike Daisey transports us back to these early roots, blending together the history of a schizophrenic writer with a "story" from Daisey's own past. As a whole, it is an engaging work of theatre, at once chilling and sinister, yet in Daisey's ever-expressive hands, beautiful as well. It is the perfect treat for anytime, but especially so at Halloween.
In Unforeseen, Daisey tells two different stories, alternating between each throughout the show. I won't ruin the surprise of how he and director Jean-Michele Gregory physically distinguish the two strains, but to say it supports the play's theme is an understatement. Daisey begins talking about a Brooklyn-style seance he recently held with friends. After disclosing a growing obsession with the letters of posthumously famous horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, a series of coincidences lead Daisey to the Brooklyn apartment in which Lovecraft lived, wrote, and according to Daisey, fell headlong into madness. Now aware of the cursed location, what's left for a professional storyteller to do but break into the vacant apartment and attempt to speak with the dead?
Daisey's other train of thought carries us back to the performer's childhood, to the cold, unforgiving landscape of upper Maine. The smart, but unsocial, Daisey, a "man boy" or "boy man" as he says, has found the spark of a soul mate in Laura, a classmate who bears within her a horrifying family secret. The monologue is billed as being "about ghost stories and why we tell them," so the validity of this latter tale is in question. Perhaps, this is beside the point. True or a work of fiction, at its core Unforeseen is really about the darkness that lingers like a cloud on an otherwise sun-filled day. Whether on the evening news or in a campfire ghost story, it is this darkness that draws us closer; that grabs so many of us, holding our focus until at last we break free lest we sacrifice any final shred of hope harboring within. The unforeseen.
Wading into these deep, murky waters, one can ask for no better guide than Mike Daisey. Here, as in his previous works, Daisey arms himself for the journey with only two weapons: the pen and his voice. In Unforeseen, Daisey displays an absolute and expert control over them both. Like a great piece of literature that wraps itself around you, not a word of Unforeseen feels wasted or of second thought. The same is true of Daisey's delivery. His tone is perfect; at times funny, at other times scholarly, and when called for by the story, capable of chilling his audience to the very bone. Surely no one can convey the image of a cracked skull spilling its contents like Mike Daisey. Sitting behind his ominous black wooden desk, Daisey calls to mind a tele-evangelist, those masters of the spoken word; able to move and convince, individually, each member of their audience, with almost no physicality at all. It is a brilliant something to behold, this ability to engage with such deceptively simple surroundings and direction.
The world is, and will always be, a place capable of great, often unthinkable, darkness. We need no campfire story or special holiday to reassure us of that. But, in strange way, watching the art of Mike Daisey in action, one finds the clouds breaking, just enough, to realize that in spite of what surrounds us, there are still some things here in our world that are very, very good.