No man is an island, but Mike Daisey’s pretty close. Booming furiously from behind a large table, visible only from the waist up, he seems less a man and more some sort of severe tectonic event: an angry mass borne from beneath the surface of things, come to lay new ground toward an understanding of our shared humanity. Or, at least, what humanity would be if the modern world didn’t keep getting so thoroughly screwed up.
In his previous solo shows at Woolly, Daisey drew his crosshairs on national security (If You See Something, Say Something) and on the business of professional art (How Theatre Failed America), but his newest monologue takes on the American dollar itself. Here, Daisey’s building a bridge between Tanna – a small island in the South Pacific with virtually no currency – and what we tirelessly term the First World, in an era when nothing – especially money – is as solid as we dream it to be.
As usual, Daisey’s in high gear. His pieces snarl with surprising ferocity given his sedentary stance. Without moving one step he holds our attention for two hours, careening from explosive sequences of spluttering rage to drifting moments of solemn gravity. In one second, he’s spinning his wrists in whirligigs, searching for logic in stupidity or reason in hypocrisy. In the next, he narrows his eyes, purses his lips, and dispenses judgment. Despite our rosy illusions about 21st century progress, once again there’s trouble in paradise, and no one escapes indictment.
In his Pacific travels, Daisey finds one occasion after another to stack up Tanna’s “cargo cult” (a religious obsession with the American goods and supplies abandoned on the island at the end of World War II) against our own unflagging devotion to financial status and the accumulation of wealth. America’s true religion is money, and Tanna’s true religion is America – fertile ground for analysis indeed. So why, given Daisey’s talent for offering juicy communal questions, do we leave the room this time without much to chew on?
If Daisey seems a little less focused than usual, it may be due to some genre-shock. Although the monologue is perfectly entertaining and dotted with humorous circumstance, the heart of the show gets lost in a medial zone between the delicate, keen-eyed specificity of travel journalism and the blunt force needed to stage the kind of socio-political harangue that Daisey’s become so good at voicing. These are certainly two noble endeavors; it’s in the synthesis that things get a bit dicey, and many of the bridges that Daisey strings up from point A to point B wobble treacherously when we take the step to cross them.
Of course, we’ve always loved Mike Daisey – more for his hot, bruising honesty than for his cool investigative skills. He’s always been more pundit than journalist, melding personal memoir with his latest research. In The Last Cargo Cult, this works best when he puts his sharp wit to detailing the absurd traumas of travel itself – a well that humor writers like Bill Bryson have been tapping for years. We’re thankful Daisey’s got a mind for comedy during a terrifying island-hopping flight across Vanuatu with a pilot that looks like a Bond villain and, later, an equally terrifying rental-car incident in the Hamptons. Wealth, with all its comforts and pitfalls, is clearly the bulls-eye here. As one Tanna resident tells Daisey the American: “Everything you do has price, and nothing has value. You have no kastom. You’ve forgotten the faces of your fathers.”
That word “kastom” is Tanna’s term for traditional communal living, i.e. the way people lived before money arrived, tucked in the pockets of French and English imperialists. Wealth, Daisey argues, is a cushion. It corrodes relationships, dissolves consequences, and invalidates community. And on a large scale, as the world saw in the fall of 2008, it can amount to financial terrorism. Even when the bottom falls out, and when the general public begins to get a whiff of what it means to lose trillions of dollars, those at the top of the pyramid still stay on top. After all, that’s how they built the system to function.
It’s not exactly a revelatory idea, but it might have come into sharper relief next to lessons learned on the island, much of which still functions without currency. Unfortunately, while abroad Daisey doesn’t seem spurred to delve very deep. He walks among Tanna’s villagers, but his sojourn feels oddly cursory, content in taking the unusual tribal customs at face value without much thought to the origins of spectacle.
And what a spectacle it is. On John Frum Day, the annual celebration of the American ideal – or at least the islander’s impression of it – hundreds of drummers and dancers crowd the public spaces decked out in tinsel, reeds, chalk and paint, celebrating for hours on end. What about America, exactly, are they celebrating? A clear answer might have got us laughing at ourselves (always healthy) but the narrative threads remain untied in this portion, and we wind up laughing at the wacky natives instead. Probably not so healthy.
Thankfully, Daisey retains his humility throughout his trip. Some stories of volcano hiking and pig hunting, too, make for a some welcome shifts in tone. The Last Cargo Cult is not his most cohesive round of storytelling; it’s stimulating more for its quirky anecdotes and amusing subplots than for its overarching cautionary message about wealth. But Daisey’s impromptu style will prove a blessing as well – he never works off a script, and the piece will morph and change on a nightly basis – so it may only be a matter of time before this reviewer’s thoughts get resorbed into the terrain once again. For globe-trotting Daisey remains a master of plate tectonics. Every time he pounds his fist or barks a thundering punchline, it seems more of Earth opens up to us.
The Last Cargo Cult
Created and performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory
Produced by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Reviewed by Hunter Styles