More ‘ecstasy’ than ‘agony’ in Steve Jobs tale
Lance Baker | Photo by David Skorpen
‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’
16th Street Theater, 6420 16th St., Berwyn
through Feb. 9
(708) 795-6704; www.16thstreettheater.org
It takes a gifted storyteller to keep a nearly two-hour monologue on overseas sweatshops from turning into a preach-fest.
But in delivering Mike Daisey’s saga of Apple computers — how they’re made, how the company evolved and most of all how we’ve all been indelibly shaped by the creativity of Steve Jobs — actor/director Lance Baker keeps his audience rapt. And, often, laughing. The script isn’t without problems, but there’s no denying the power of Baker’s wry, understatedly acerbic and self-deprecating delivery.
“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” became infamous a while back when National Public Radio revealed that Daisey had fabricated portions of the monologue, claiming to have interviewed much-abused factory workers who in fact didn’t exist. Daisey responded by claiming artistic license and emphasizing that he was a storyteller, not a documentarian, but that didn’t change the fact that he’d presented the stories of “Agony and Ecstasy” as a truthful expose, part of which aired on NPR’s “This American Life.”
The piece has been tweaked since that scandal, and if anything, it’s more powerful. Of course it’s easy to doubt Daisey, given his admitted history of bending the truth in the name of creating a good story. But his script takes the bull by the horns on that issue, asking “But…why believe me? I am, after all, a noted fabulist.” You don’t have to take Daisey’s word for anything, the script implies. But what about the New York Times? Or NPR? He goes on to cite these and a wealth of other sources documenting the working conditions at the Foxconn factory in China where a staggering 430,000 workers perform on assembly lines creating the world’s smart phones, tablets and laptops.
It’s at that factory that nets have been extended around the exterior; management’s solution to the not infrequent instance of workers committing suicide by hurling themselves from the rooftop of the massive building.
In detailing the minute, repetitive tasks workers are charged with, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” paints a grim picture of a manufacturing process virtually every user of modern technology tacitly supports. Crippling carpel tunnel is not unusual. Neither are neurological disorders, caused by exposure to Hexane, the cleaning fluid used to wipe every screen that leaves the factory.
Where “The Agony and the Ecstasy” comes up short isn’t in its descriptions of factory conditions or its fascinating recount of the history of Apple Computers. It’s in the final passages, when Daisey’s script falls into pretentiousness and proclaims the show is a “virus” for the good and ends by telling the audience that it is “free” as a result of hearing the piece. His ending seems to call for some unspecified action on the part of consumers, when it would seem the real solutions to China’s sweatshops would have to involve far more complicated geo-political endeavors.
But aside from the tail end, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” is a rip-roaring piece of storytelling and a provocative piece of theater.