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Review of Mike Daisey's 'Last Cargo Cult' at Woolly Mammoth Theatre

01.16.10
Washington Post

By Peter Marks

Finally, the banking system has met its match. In "The Last Cargo Cult," the inimitable Mike Daisey harnesses pervasive contempt for the way many banks have handled the financial crisis and uses it to fuel a divine rant about how we have allowed money to ruin everything.

The monologue at Woolly Mammoth Theatre may constitute the finest hour -- actually, make that two hours -- ever devised by Daisey, a tale-spinner of amusingly footnoted outrage. His brand of bombast is perfectly calibrated for examinations of the colossal follies of our time. In this instance, he gets the meaty topic between his teeth and, like some carnivorous poet, gnaws it down to eloquent bone.

Equal parts travelogue, morality play and picaresque comedy, "The Last Cargo Cult" is a sort of bedtime story for adults. It's staged by Daisey's wife, Jean-Michele Gregory, in the same modest visual style as his other performance pieces: Daisey sits at a rectangular table, his only utilitarian props a glass of water, a stack of paper and a cloth to wipe his prodigiously sweaty brow. The lighting by Andrew Griffin ably illuminates the shifts in narrative tone.

Never in two nonstop hours of disputation does this disciplined performer move from his chair. As Hamlet would say, it's "words, words, words," though in this case, we eagerly await more of them. The approach is very similar to that of the pioneering monologuist, the late Spalding Gray, known for "Swimming to Cambodia." Where Gray's tales -- recited from behind the same kind of table -- were self-referential purges, Daisey's pieces are more worldly and aggressively political. Michael Moore hovers over the proceedings almost as profoundly as does Gray.

Still, no one would mistake the abrasive Moore or solipsistic Gray for a go-along sort of guy, and so it is with Daisey. You'll either embrace his voracious, profanity-laced theatricality -- at times a bit of pomposity does overtake him -- or you won't. What's undeniable, though, is that you are in the presence of an original, an astute writer with a photographic ability to capture absurdity in both wide shot and close-up.

The inspiration for "The Last Cargo Cult" is a trip Daisey took to the South Pacific archipelago of Vanuatu and, more specifically, to the tiny island of Tanna, where he went in search of members of the John Frum movement. This provides an utterly fascinating hook for the evening, because Daisey, like Paul Theroux, is a tourist skilled not only at description but also at tabulating the miseries of travel. (He starts off with a hilarious account of the terrors of island-hopping in Oceania in a prop plane, a white-knuckle experience I personally can vouch for.)

The island followers of John Frum, presumed to be a fictitious American GI, give the show its title. By Daisey's account they are the last surviving practitioners of a cargo cult, so named because its adherents believed that through worship they could attain the material goods of the missionaries and soldiers who arrived as if magically in the 19th and 20th centuries. Daisey tells us he had taken the journey to record John Frum Day, an annual celebration on Tanna in which the islanders' somewhat convoluted grasp of American history -- recounted in another sharply funny interlude of the monologue -- is enacted in music and dance.

It may seem another sort of stretch, to find linkage between a Pacific adventure and a worldwide monetary system's invention of impossibly complicated financial instruments. The marvel is that Daisey locates the connection between the islanders' reality and ours, and in the process identifies another level of cargo cult, an entire system that also applies a ritualization to the veneration of wealth. To make the link even more concrete, Daisey has the ushers greet audience members at the doors to hand out a tangible symbol of that worshipful relationship, a token that will figure in Daisey's final, revealing request of the ticket holders.

"The Last Cargo Cult's" resonance asserts itself ever more seductively, as the parallels take hold in Daisey's observations about the islanders' way of life and the ways we look at money. ("I lost three months of my life understanding what derivatives are, and I'll never get them back," he declares.) What you come to in "Cargo Cult" is a sense that we're as confused and reliant on mythology about the way our money is handled at the highest levels as the John Frum society is about the sequence of American current events.

Fortunately, we've got Daisey up on that stage, rumbling and churning like some active volcano, trying to rattle us out of our sense of complacency.