The monologuist is, perhaps, the most naked of all stage performers. Whether his presentation is fictional, non-fictional or a hybrid of the two, the intrusiveness of barebones interaction with a single actor will inevitably inspire heightened expectations of honesty from an audience. Let’s resurrect the agony and ecstasy of Mike Daisey.
Daisey’s one-man show, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” a reputed piece of investigative reporting on Apple’s manufacturing practices at a Chinese Foxconn factory, drew wider public attention to monologuists than ever before in January, when, after an appearance on NPR’s “This American Life,” some of Daisey’s shocking stories were debunked as exaggerated or even fabrications.
In the immediate aftermath of the controversy, two staunchly opinionated groups materialized: the anti-Daiseys, proclaiming that, with his lies, Daisey suppressed the voices of those he sought to liberate, and the pro-Daisey faction, believing that, with his minor fibs, he bravely exposed a grander truth that had been hidden to the world. My opinion on Daisey and his monologue aside, I have never witnessed such extreme expectations of a performer’s accountability from an audience like that of Daisey and his play. One man in a black shirt onstage alone.
Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor wrote “Here Lies Henry” in 1996, fifteen years prior to all of the Mike Daisey hoopla, yet the topical parallels are striking. Currently being performed in Chicago by Interrobang Theatre Project in a remount of their 2011 production, MacIvor’s play is an idiosyncratic rumination on the nature of the truth onstage. Is it even possible to tell the truth onstage? The fourth wall, that great dissembler of reality, is entirely removed by the playwright, though the piece, itself, is wholly fictional. With that invisible barrier shattered, Henry lies right in the face of the audience. Despite this obvious breach of trust, the audience sticks by his side. In part, this is because of the resonance of actor Michael Moran’s flawed likability, and also because of the unexpected profundity that escapes Henry’s mouth amidst the ceaseless babbling.
MacIvor’s play abounds with aphoristic wisdoms, and regardless of the play’s title and the character’s unashamed propensity toward deceit, most of Henry Thomas Gallery’s speech stems from a place of opinion rather than stone cold fact. Talking in circles at breakneck pace, Henry stops, stares blankly out at the audience, and says “Who thought ‘faggot’?” and leaves a lingering, uncomfortable silence. Up to that point, the character’s sexuality is largely ambiguous, and only base, stereotypical assumptions on mannerisms and vocal inflection can be made. But that curt question left me breathless and absolutely certain of the play’s formidable guts and genuine spirit. Henry’s barrage of opinions on life, love and the mysterious circumstances surrounding the afterlife are earned from a clearly rich emotional history—the facts of which are left unsure. Sounds an awful lot like acting to me.
Every performer you will ever witness onstage is lying or, more politely, pretending to be something they are not. These gifted actors dig deep into their emotional pasts to bring their fictional characters that much closer to living, breathing reality; always coming just short of achieving it. So, as Henry admits to many of his lies, isn’t he being more truthful than your average actor? Like that little stoner observation, the many exciting questions that bubble up in the minds of audience members would remain silent were it not for the skills and stamina of actor Michael Moran.
Moran’s nervous physicality is fidgety and craftily double-sided. He bends his knees with his feet firmly planted and swerves his body rapidly from side to side. But what appears to be an arbitrary and awkward speech-making movement is, in actuality, the windup for a series of ritualistic gestures, stances and sounds representing his life’s events. The literal happenings of those events may be false, but Moran’s complicated and complex characterization lends the play an immense emotional believability. The actor’s collaboration with director Jeffry Stanton is supremely well-paced and varied, while maintaining an organic momentum.
A loose plot emerges from Henry’s wordy sprint. There is fleeting mention of a dead body in another room and a few cold reenactments of a dance with an unfaithful lover, but there is no way of knowing if Henry is telling the truth about these occurrences or not. The plot may be impossible to chart, but the journey is gut-wrenching and disconcertingly recognizable. Henry Thomas Gallery’s haphazardly shrugged-off asides bore into your blocked weaknesses, and, for a moment, expose them raw. In “Here Lies Henry,” the title might be the biggest lie of all. (Johnny Oleksinski)