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By Jason Zinoman
Before I settle into my seat at “The Last Cargo Cult,” a stem-winding solo meditation on the meaning of money from the prolific storyteller Mike Daisey, the usher slaps a dollar bill in my hand. I’m shocked. If you’re going to bribe a theater critic, a measly buck is an insult.
I then notice that I am not the only one getting paid off; $10 and $20 bills are being handed out like fliers at a fringe festival. What is going on here? Mr. Daisey lets that question hang there for most of this show at the Public Theater.
When he arrives onstage, sitting as he always does behind a glass of water and a desk, he dives into a story about a plane ride to the Pacific island Tanna, which he describes as a land “beyond the reach of money.” With an effortlessness that comes from years of spinning tales, he imbues this uneventful trip with the punch of the first explosion of an action movie.
As Mr. Daisey explains, the United States set up military bases on this island during World War II and when the soldiers left, a religious movement — known as a cargo cult — formed to celebrate their visitors. Every year the tribal community mounts a song-and-dance show about the history of America. Mr. Daisey is there to see one of those shows. He frames the account of his visit with a second story: the recent financial crisis, paralleling the islanders’ belief in the United States with our faith in money.
The way Mr. Daisey makes his arguments, more than the arguments themselves, is what makes him one of the elite performers in the American theater. Sometimes he lays them out straightforwardly, but more often he expresses ideas indirectly through story and, increasingly, through a self-conscious use of language. He repeats words (pay attention to “island” and “detached”), making them signposts to guide audiences toward his conclusion. He illustrates the relationship between money and trust this way: “I don’t buy that. That’s what we say in our culture when we don’t believe something.”
In his new show, the seventh that I’ve seen, Mr. Daisey’s longtime director, Jean-Michele Gregory, helped him expand beyond a Spalding Gray aesthetic. For the first time there is an actual set dominated by a mountain of boxes, designed by Peter Ksander. Mr. Daisey still sits down and turns rumpled papers, but he has added more flamboyance to his repertory. He curses more, punctuates several jokes with a Sam Kinison scream; and he really has perfected the art of juxtaposing rubbery facial expressions with absolute stillness.
Lately Mr. Daisey has become known as a polemicist. And when connecting disparate narratives to make sweeping claims about the way power works, his manner can resemble that other gifted star of the monologue, Glenn Beck. This tactic has always been in tension with a more wandering style, committed to spontaneity, real-time thinking (he famously does not use a script) and complexity. My favorite moments are not when two story lines lead to an epiphany, but when they, like characters in a play, argue with each other, making answers seem more remote.
At its core “Cargo Cult” is about how the increasingly abstract financial instruments of our day have not only made people blind to questions of risk but also to the value of money, which, Mr. Daisey argues, is much more relative than we think. Reaching for poetic flourishes, he indulges in hyperbole, calling the financial system a giant Ponzi scheme and employing the term “financial terrorism.” At the same time he is willing to complicate his argument. While he begins by imagining Tanna as beyond the world of business, he learns that the island is not so foreign after all.
At the end of “Cargo Cult” Mr. Daisey puts a bowl on a table and tells audience members that the bills they received at the beginning of the show were from his own bank account and that if they choose to, they can give them back. It’s a provocative experiment designed to make concrete something that is often unspoken. Building on his bomb-throwing critique of regional theater, “How Theater Failed America,” Mr. Daisey reminds us that acting is work rooted in a business relationship.
To hit the point home, Mr. Daisey tells us that we don’t just pay for tickets to see a show. We are also paying so that he can afford rent. “You are nothing to me,” he says, scowling. “You sit there in the darkness, strangers to me. You listen, and you laugh. You are a job. And you will be replaced.” Money binds us to him. And the fact that its value shifts arbitrarily seems more natural than ever. After all, that dollar has been sitting in my pocket for two hours, and when I put it in the bowl it feels, for a fleeting moment, like I am actually giving up something.