Theater Review - Mike Daisey throttles American consumerism in The Last Cargo Cult

Daisey calls to mind Spalding Gray in his solo show at the Alliance Hertz Stage

A great wall of cardboard boxes looms over the rear of the performing space for The Last Cargo Cult at the Alliance Hertz Stage. Displaying brand names such as Federal Express and Crate & Barrel, the edifice of packing material neatly represents American consumerism. While waiting for the show to begin, I imagined monologist Mike Daisey – who’s not an insubstantial performer – would enter by smashing through the wall of containers, like the Kool-Aid man.

In fact, Daisey simply walks out from the wings. Through the course of The Last Cargo Cult, though, Daisey symbolically smashes U.S. materialism, the greed of high finance, and the hunger for IKEA furniture that propped up the system until the global economic slump. Daisey, like an alchemist who turns dross into gold, finds uproarious humor while portraying the 2008 financial meltdown as the moral and fiscal equivalent of 9/11.

Over the course of the evening, Daisey alternates discussions of money’s corrosive effects with his epic visit to the South Pacific island community of Lamakara. A community at the foot of an active volcano turns out to be the title’s “last cargo cult:” a group of islanders who worship American consumer goods. Daisey proves to be an outrageously funny raconteur who coins quotable turns of phrase (although many might not be suitable for the easily offended). He mentions that the rickety plane that delivered him to the island “looked like the punch line of a joke about planes.”

Daisey likely drew inspiration from the late Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia. In Cambodia, Gray, a master of the stylized monologue, used his misadventures on location for The Killing Fields to riff on the West’s difficulty in grasping the magnitude of events such as the Cambodian massacre. Like Gray, Daisey spends the entire show seated at a wooden table, but Daisey turns out to be even more of a powerhouse. He displays vocal force and expansive gestures worthy of a Roman orator as well as a penchant for apoplectic rants reminiscent of “The Daily Show’s” Lewis Black.

Gray’s self-deprecating tales frequently depict a quirky everyman grappling with life’s temptations and challenges. Daisey also mines his own experience, from a visit with South Pacific royalty to an automotive mishap with his wife in the Hamptons. Daisey uses such anecdotes as springboards to launch toward big, portentous subjects, such as his realization, on arriving at college, of his family’s relative poverty.

He’s no hippie rhapsodizing over the joys of communal living, though. When he describes the tension between our cultural acquisitiveness and the need for detachment, he remarks, “The reason so few people are detaching is, our shit is awesome.” Phrases such as “it’s awkward,” “this is true,” and references to “our awesome shit” serve as refrains throughout the show.

Daisey proves to be more than just a funny comedian and a spellbinding storyteller: He’s also an inquisitive thinker with a rich perspective on social structures. Daisey lays out how money can intrude on practically any kind of relationship or activity despite essentially being devoid of meaning or value (particularly since the gold standard no longer backs up dollars). Huge banks behaved irrationally by sinking incalculable fortunes into wispy financial instruments like derivatives, then turned around to offer the craven excuse, “How could we have known that a system without morals or ethics was unstable?”

Of the many attempts by the media to make sense of the financial crisis (Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story first comes to mind), The Last Cargo Cult succeeds best at placing the disaster and the illusions it dashed in personal and moral terms. Daisey implicates himself as much as everyone else. The show includes a bit of audience participation involving greenbacks and an empty punch bowl that, on opening night at least, suggested that money doesn’t hold a controlling interest on human priorities.

The long show (a full two hours with no break) gives the audience a lot to process. Daisey’s energy occasionally flags a bit, but he still proves to be a charismatic, passionate speaker worthy of his own cult. By the end of the evening, any of his entranced spectators will be ready to drink the Kool-Aid.