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The Trump Card

I have a specialty, sort of, in megalomaniacal figures.— Mike Daisey
Mike Daisey
The Trump Card is on its way to Joe's Pub at NYC's Public Theater (opening July 24). Currently it's playing at FringeArts, a gathering place with a theater space, bar and restaurant. FringeArts is also the name of the umbrella organization that inhabits the building and runs the Fringe Festival held in September in Philadelphia.

Tonight the stage is bare except for the wooden table and chair placed front and center. On the table are a glass of water, a small cloth, and a few pages of what is likely an outline. Mike Daisey rarely glances at it. His most repeated gesture is mopping his brow on this warm evening as he does his sit-down kind of stand-up under the lights for an hour and 45 minutes.

As with his notorious Steve Jobs monologue (notes on that later) he wants to wise people up and effect change with his performance. Problem is, in presenting about Trump at a site like FringeArts, he's preaching to the choir. That fact hasn't escaped the artist, who notes at the start that he's an "intellectual leftist commie living in leftist Brooklyn," and that we, the audience, can also be pegged as "left." Our reasons for attendance are "the sweet sense of schadenfreude" and getting "the red meat." He keeps us aware, now and then, that we're playing the role of audience members just as he's playing the role of storyteller.

Republicans who feel morally compromised in backing this candidate might also want to catch this show. And it might interest Trump's ardent supporters to learn that, to an extent, Daisey gets how they might fall for Trump, the guy who has broken open the fissures in the GOP.

And Trump says things that people would like to say when they're frustrated with the political scene, so his bragging mouthiness has appeal. Mike Daisey believes, however, that their man's honest performance only appears to be real: "The language of nostalgia is the language of racism. That's how America is going to be great again." Daisey, absolutely livid about racism, ties in his own family with the "ordinariness of racism" he saw in his grandfather.

In one of his story threads he entertains imagined company in his home, playing Trump the Game, an actual board game that's a bent Monopoly variant. In another part of the story he gives Trump a shellacking for coming up under the wing of his long-time lawyer/mentor, the very devil incarnate, Roy Cohn. That's a trump card. (Mike recommends that if anyone in the audience doesn't know from Roy Cohn, they should watch Kushner's Angels in America.) Another trump card he plays involves Woody Guthrie, whose slumlord was Donald's father.

The storyline, artistically arranged and intricately plotted, is almost poetic when the performer is not taking a fit and going all foul-mouthed. But then, that's kind of poetic too. He carries us along, gaining steam and moving forward, then circling back, working the personal angles. It's somewhat reminiscent of the storytelling structure of the late great Jean Shepherd (who didn't get political or quite so riled up).

Although I quote a bit from the performance here, I‘ve barely skimmed the surface of the many eminently quotable utterances. It hasn't been easy to refrain from divulging a pile of killer lines. But that's just how trailers spoil movies — showing way too much action and giving away all the best lines. At least in this solo show there are no action scenes to fret about revealing.

When discussing Daisey's work, it's almost incumbent upon the reviewer to dredge up 2012. I did see The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs at the Public Theater in Feb 2012, just before the dam broke. Mike Daisey wanted to "change our code" by drawing attention to terrible working conditions at the Apple facility in Shenzhen, China. The problem lay in the way Daisey went about it. This American Life took him to task for unethically placing himself into the piece as a journalist with specific firsthand experience that he didn't actually have. And Charles Isherwood, who, before the revelation had been impressed in his initial review of the Public Theater performance, criticized him for "twisting facts in the service of a larger truth." Daisey contended that "the tools of the theater are not the same as the tools of journalism," but he issued an apology that admitted some fabrication. The Public Theater backed him up: "Mike is an artist, not a journalist," But their statement conceded, "Nevertheless, we wish he had been more precise with us and our audiences about what was and wasn't his personal experience in the piece."

This time around, with no pretense of personal involvement in any journalistic capacity, he uncovers information on Donald J. Trump that's out there waiting to be found. He didn't need to make this stuff up. Under the direction of Isaac Butler, Mike Daisey emotes. He's personable, impossible, and very funny as he spins a compelling narrative of things we already know and maybe some that we didn't. I idly wonder if the show changes much as new convolutions and potential material keep coming in. Daisey makes a damning case that penetrates Trump's thin and hollow gold-plated veneer. The Trump Card, more tragedy than comedy, is so funny you want to cry.

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The Trump Card by Mike Daisey
Directed by Isaac Butler

Cast: Mike Daisey
July 14 & 21
1 hour and 45 minutes
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 07/14/16 performance. FringeArts, Race St. and Columbus Blvd, Philadelphia

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