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A CurtainUp Review
The Last Cargo Cult

Someone has to pay. Someone always does. .— Mike Daisey
Mike Daisey
Mike Daisey
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Since his 2001 breakout at the New York International Fringe Festival with 21 Dog Years: Doing Time at, the 36-year-old Daisey has hit his full stride. Each of the 15 monologues he's created so far has found its stage legs either in New York, across the country, or overseas. If You See Something, Say Something was presented at Joe's Pub last season. Now he's at the Public's Newman Theater.

The feisty yarn-spinner's new monologue, The Last Cargo Cult, is based on his time on a remote South Pacific island named Tanna, where the natives worship America at the base of an active volcano. At two hours with no intermission, it's long; but Daisey redeems the length by hitting us with some probing questions about American materialism.

Each person entering the theater is given money by the ushers, a bill ranging in value from one dollar to one hundred. I don't want to be a spoiler, but the gimmick sends out a hard-life lesson: wealth is arbitrary—and even if you have it now, it can vanish in a wink. Be prepared to have Daisey examine our financial system, warts and all.

Dressed in his usual black, Daisey makes his entrance with little fanfare. He sits down at a desk that has a glass of water, a facecloth, and written notes (that he never looks at). He is an imposing bear of a man, with blondish hair and a bull-dog face. He keeps his cool even when faced with interruptions from the audience; for example, when a man near the lip of the stage pressed him to explain why money had been given out to ticketholders he came back with "This is a monologue, buddy" and then took a sip of water, patted his mouth with the facecloth, and carried on.

The Cargo Cult narrative begins with a helter-skelter airflight toTanna which Daisey equates to an episode out of an Indiana Jones film. He describes the pilot as speaking pidgin English and looking altogether shaky: a scar on his face, a "milky" eye, a large knife on his belt. No luxury flight, this.

It's easy to fall under the spell of Daisey's sense of humor, and powerful story telling. In this latest monologue we learn about the historical origins and development of cargo cults and how cult members still adhere to the same belief system today. It's a story that defies a quick and easy summary, but suffice it to say that during World War II, U.S. military bases were set up in the Pacific that were remote from the conflict. The military personnel, with time on their hands, introduced the local inhabitants to all the perks of civilization: chocolate, cigarettes, refrigerators, radios, and more. When the bases were abandoned after the war, the natives continued to worship America (or, more precisely, American power).

Fortunately, you don't need to be a Wall Street type or international financier to get the points being made. In fact, Daisey often pokes fun at himself during his piece for trying to wrap his mind around something as huge as the international financial crisis. He admits that he had to bone up on key terms like" hedge funds" and "derivatives." And though he was able to nail the first term, he confesses that the latter was too abstract for him to pin down completely.

As Daisey moves from Tanna to America, from the present to the past, and so forth, he also portrays himself as both a contemptuous critic of the American economy and an enthusiastic worshipper of technological gadgets. And, though the central story revolves around Tanna and Chief Jacob (Tanna's chieftain), Daisey finds room for other narrative threads. There's a detour to his salad days in Maine which vividly recreates his first semester at Colby College in Maine where he learned quickly how one's belongings connoted social status. Besides being amazed at the expensive objects that were unpacked from some students' duffel bags, he was equally dumbstruck by their globe-trotting stories.

The funniest story by far is Daisey's account of sharing his bed with a small pig. Is this over the top? Well, he tells us that he was very lonely for his wife (his long-time collaborator and director Jean-Michele Gregory) during his stay in Tanna, and invited the pig to bed as a surrogate. Because gossip spreads quickly throughout Tanna, Daisey soon found that he had upset the islanders. They soon balanced everything out by inviting Daisey to go on a traditional pig hunt during which he was asked to kill a pig and then barbecue it for dinner. Not surprisingly, the pig hunt cured him of any sentimental feelings toward pigs and other wild life on Tanna.

The Last Cargo Cult blurs fact with fiction, and vice versa. But adventurous playgoers will enjoy listening to Daisey's pilgrimage to the land that annually celebrates America in song, dance, and theater — even as it shakes the stuffing out of Wall Street, and lands plenty of punches to the financial marketplace.

The Last Cargo Cult
Written and performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory

With: Mike Daisey
Sets: Peter Ksander
Sound: Daniel Erdberg
Lighting: Russell H. Champa
Stage Manager: Michael D. Domue
The Public Theater at The Newman, 425 Lafayette Street, Tickets: $40, Phone 212/967-7555 or visit
From 12/03/09; opening 12/07/09; closing 12/13/09.
Tuesday through Saturday @ 7pm; additional performance on Sunday, 12/13. @ 2pm. There will be no performance on Tuesday, December 8.
Running time: 2 hours with no intermission
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on December 4th press performance
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