Mike Daisey recounts our obsession with cash

01.14.11
Mike Daisey
Berkeley Side

By Frances Dinkelspiel

At the end of Mike Daisey’s solo show “The Last Cargo Cult,” now playing at Berkeley Rep, all I could do was sit back and gape.

For more than two hours I had watched Daisey shout, scream, murmur, and sweat as he spun a tale about the mysteries of a South Pacific island and the mysterious devotion Westerners have to cash. With little more than a few sheets of notes, a glass of water, a table, a handkerchief to wipe off his brow, and a backdrop of dozens of cardboard boxes featuring every conceivable type of consumer product, Daisey had managed to keep the audience captivated.

Starting with the chilling tale of how he almost died in a island puddle-hopper, and continuing through with stories of his (almost) middle class childhood in Maine, his rude awakening as a freshmen in college that some of his classmates had a lot cooler gadgets than he would ever be able to afford, and on to tales of our obsession with objects, Daisey was a force-field, drawing the audience further and further into his orbit.

Granted, not all the stories he told were engrossing. I didn’t really care for his recounting of the nine-hour dance pageant performed in the honor of one John Frum on the island of Vanuatu.  And while he tries to make “The Last Cargo Cult,” a piece that calls into question the centrality of possessions and the willingness of Americans to bow to the mighty dollar, he doesn’t quite succeed. Yet I had a very good time going along for the ride.

(Warning: spoiler coming up)

And Daisey has come up with the best gimmick to engage an audience I have ever seen. As people entered the theater (and be sure to remember to visit the bathroom before the show because if you dash out during the performance you won’t be able to re-enter) they were handed different dollar denominations. I know there were $1, $5 and $10 bills handed out (I got a $5), and I assume $20 bills were floating around as well. People immediately started comparing how much they were given, with those on the high end feeling slightly smug.

And that was Daisey’s point: Americans tend to see the world through the prism of money. The more we have the more important we are. It lets us buy more gadgets.

At the end of the show Daisey announces that the money represents what Berkeley Rep is paying him for the performance. It is up to the audience, says Daisey, to decide how much his show is worth. They can keep the money, give it back, and even add a little extra. Tell me that isn’t a guilt-inducing enticement.

Daisey is performing “The Last Cargo Cult,” along with “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” in alternating performances at Berkeley Rep through February 27.