Taken in by the Cult of Mike Daisey

01.13.11
Mike Daisey
TheaterDogs

By Chad Jones
I’ve seen Mike Daisey before on the Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Thrust Stage. The country’s foremost monologist has entertained and captivated me on several occasions.

But at Wednesday’s opening of The Last Cargo Cult, I felt like I really got to see Mike Daisey. His story has to do, among many other things, with a live volcano, and that’s what he’s like on stage. He erupts in ways that are frightening and so dazzling you just can’t turn away.

Daisey’s explosive performance is all the more extraordinary because until the curtain call, he doesn’t move from behind the large wood table, upon which rest a glass of water and a few sheets of yellow note paper.

With a face that goes from comic to emphatic and back again, Daisey gives an amazingly full-bodied performance from the waist up. His voice can boom and it can coax. For emphasis, he can ramp up a sort of Tourette-style burst of anger or outrage, often laced with an f-bomb. Get him on the subject of derivatives and step back.

Those are just a few of the tools in his considerable storyteller’s kit. Another is passion – extraordinary passion – for his subject.

The Last Cargo Cult is less autobiography and more travelogue mixed with journalism mixed with socioeconomic cage rattler. The star of the show isn’t even Daisey himself. It’s money. Cold, hard cash, man.

When you walk into the Thrust, an usher hands you a piece of rag paper with printing on it. On closer inspection, this paper turns out to be legal tender. Some people get ones, some get fives, tens or twenties. A few folks even got to inspect the Mona Lisa-like smile of Ben Franklin on $100 bill.

I won’t tell you what happens with the money, but it’s powerful. Daisey wants to give us some perspective on our relationship to money and what it actually means in the world. He might as well walk up to each audience member individually and make us announce how much we made last year.

To say our relationship with money is complicated is, of course, a massive understatement. But Daisey, in his wonderfully engaging way, finds a way to bring a fresh viewpoint. When he says money is our true religion, that it holds a sacred place in our lives, he’s absolutely right. When he says that money only ever corrodes relationships, he’s absolutely right.

The crystallization of want looms large in this show – almost as large as the towering pyramid of merchandise boxes that fills the stage (set and lighting design by Seth Reiser. We want all kinds of things, and we spread our want around the world by way of our, as Daisey puts it, “awesome shit.”

That’s how he ends up on a small rock in the South Pacific, an island in the Vanuatu archipelago called Tanna, once famous for its cannibalism and now known for its annual John Frum Day, a spiritual celebration of all things American. Thanks to a brief occupation by American soldiers during World War II, these island people worship American capitalism. They dig our awesome shit.

And it’s creepy to see ourselves and our values and our blind submission to all things financial refracted through their culture.

At two hours with no intermission, The Last Cargo Cult drags a bit here and there. It’s too long, but there wasn’t a moment I didn’t want Daisey to stop talking (or shouting or putting new spins on the word “awkward”). I loved his use of the expressions “fuck ton” and “dirtbike shit” so much that I’m going to incorporate them into my everyday language.

I have to think that Daisey can only be this good, working at this high a level, because of the ever-reliable direction of his collaborator (and wife), Jean-Michele Gregory.

Daisey likes to climb up on his soapbox, but I don’t have a problem with that when the storytelling is this powerful. When Mike Daisey talks, I buy it. I completely buy it.