Monologist Mike Daisey has an enviable talent for gaming the system, even as he critiques it. Daisey remains skeptical of mass production, but loves IKEA furniture — without irony, he tells an audience at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. He loathes our insurance system but stands eternally grateful for the American Express card policy that inured him to damages, even after he crashed a rental car in the Hamptons. He’s the kind of person who would hand out hundreds of fresh dollar bills from his personal coffers, and then ask for it back. He’s a self-described “man of appetites,” with a few searing words about human avarice. He’s capable of talking emphatically for two hours, and ending on a very succinct point.
It all comes together in Daisey’s solo performance, The Last Cargo Cult, which plays on alternating weeks with his similarly caustic monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, both directed by his wife, Jean-Michele Gregory. The former began its run last week to the excitement of theater-going Berkeleyites who will happily pay to hear their personal credos get skewered. Everyone gets a bill upon entry, but the money varies in denomination. Daisey will tell us, later, that it’s a commentary on the chanciness of fortune. Some of us are worth more than others, either by birthright or circumstance. And, he points out, we mistake that dollar value for the content of our character. The people who got hundreds are gloating. The folks who got singles are sour.
Daisey laughs. For him, every show is a transaction, in the tawdriest way possible. “You are nothing,” he tells the audience, at a particularly evocative moment. “You will be replaced.”
Such candor is a hallmark of Daisey’s performance, which combines random autobiographical tidbits with a vivid recounting of his journey to the island of Tanna, where he attended festivities for John Frum Day. The holiday satirizes American materialism, represented in the figure of John Frum — a folk hero who may have been a WWII serviceman, or a Manehivi prophet dressed in Western garb. It all ties back to Daisey’s larger theme about the evils of a consumer-based economy, wherein all our morals and ethics get supplanted by fiduciary interests. Metaphorically speaking, the entire show is a John Frum ritual. Daisey scorns Western materialism and encourages patrons to consider a more ascetic way of life, one rooted in kastom (the Tannese word for “customs” or “traditions”). At points, his performance becomes a full-on homily.
In fact, the title refers to a bizarre form of materialism that exists in certain tribal cultures — Tanna being one example. Cargo cults emerged in the South Pacific after WWII, when islanders first came in contact with Western cultures. Most have died out, but John Frum appears to have remarkable longevity. Apparently, the Tannese practice of fetish-sizing Western products is as deep-seated as the Tannese disdain for Western imperialism. In Daisey’s recounting, it’s best exemplified by a lone cell phone, which bleats insistently from the queen’s purse during a collective moment of silence.
Daisey is fond of saying that he doesn’t approach anything half-heartedly, and it shows in Cargo Cult. The performer sits at a table in front of a huge mountain of boxes, which advertise everything from Pampers to Zappos to FedEx to MacPro. The table, in contrast, is spare, containing only a glass of water, a stack of notes, and a hanky for Daisey to wipe the sweat that bubbles from his forehead. He starts the story with an elaborate description of his flight to Tanna, part of an archipelago in which every island is “a green world with a green slash for the landing strip.” Precise diction and richness of detail allows Daisey to bring every color into sharp relief. The island greens bristle, as does the “milky eye” of the airline pilot, who keeps a long knife strapped to his side. Set and lighting designer Seth Reiser makes the boxes shine greenly behind Daisey, forming an island of their own.
More potent than the descriptions, even, is the way Daisey delivers them. His voice is loud and powerful, rising in pitch mid-sentence so that each point starts on a crescendo. On stage, at least, shouting is his normal register. The notes might just be for show because Daisey never so much as glances at them. Rather, he finishes one anecdote, takes a long pause, and flips a page over dramatically. It’s never clear until the very end how everything will tie together. Supposedly it’s all done off-the-cuff.
It’s tempting to compare Daisey to other gifted monologists — the Jeff Greenwalds and Dan Hoyles of contemporary theater — although his most obvious analogue is probably the stand-up comic George Carlin. There are, indeed, more than a couple of parallels between Daisey’s image of the cargo cult and Carlin’s monologue about “stuff.” But Daisey’s performance is also a travelogue, delivered at a time when the whole meaning of travel is changing. We no longer leave home in search of remoteness, Greenwald often says. We leave in search of connection. Tanna might be as far away as a Westerner can get. But our society remains an absent presence, even there.