Having buzzed through with his autobiographical solo shows 21 Dog Years and The Ugly American, storyteller Mike Daisey returns to Berkeley Rep with four new biographical monologues called Great Men of Genius, gathering such unusual suspects as P.T. Barnum, Bertolt Brecht, L. Ron Hubbard, and Nikola Tesla.
Each piece runs a little shy of ninety minutes with no intermission, and is presented as a stand-alone evening on alternate nights, with Sunday marathons of all four. This Daisey chain has already been seen in Seattle and New York City, but the six-hour endurance runs are a new wrinkle.
Sitting at a wooden table on an otherwise bare stage, the storyteller pauses only for audible chapter breaks as he bounces back and forth between biographical tidbits about historical oddballs and embarrassing personal anecdotes of his own. Directed by his wife Jean-Michele Gregory, Daisey works from an outline rather than a script, so details may vary.
The Brecht piece is less about the German playwright than Daisey’s own fascination with Brecht’s harem of female collaborators. Scattershot sightings of Brecht as a young idler goaded into writing his first play on a dare or giving baffling testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee nicely set up stories about Daisey being pressured to create an inanely upbeat version of his show or offending everyone in the name of free speech as a bullheaded college student.
Barnum inspires a hilarious, nuanced, and wide-ranging rumination on showmanship and shameless humbuggery that moves deftly from the fascinating lives of the impresario and his sideshow attractions to Daisey’s rhapsodizing about The Wrath of Khan.
On Tesla, Daisey manages to be even more fascinating, detailing the eccentric electrical pioneer’s AC/DC feud with Edison, excessive X-raying of Mark Twain, and development of a death ray, seamlessly interwoven with reflections on mad scientists, nuclear winter, and science class mishaps.
The Hubbard monologue comes off as a kind of exposé roadshow about the fiercely defended myths around the Scientology founder, mostly invented by Hubbard himself. The most gripping parts are stories about acquaintances who’ve been hoodwinked, badgered, and fleeced by Scientologists.
Although watching all four may help appreciate the overall concept, you can pick and choose without missing anything. Daisey’s yarns are like potato chips, however: It’s hard to stop with just one.