New York-based monologist Mike Daisey has been a frequent visitor to Berkeley Rep with his one-man shows 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @ Amazon.com, The Ugly American, and Great Men of Genius—the last of which was actually four different monologues that he performed in repertory. Now he’s back with two new pieces that he also performs in repertory, although not two a night like last time around. The first of them, The Last Cargo Cult, opened last week, and it runs in repertory with The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs
Daisey’s stories are unscripted but they’re far from off the cuff. Rather than writing them down he hones them night after night in performance under the watchful eye of his wife and director, Jean-Michele Gregory. Like the late Spalding Gray, he performs sitting at a table with a glass of water and lets his natural skill as a raconteur take you along on the journey he describes. The Last Cargo Cult gives you a bit more to work with visually in an amusing set by Seth Reiser that consists of a huge mountain of post-consumer boxes for TVs, laptops, Zappos, Crate & Barrell, Huggies, Brita, Ikea and dozens of others, piled nearly to the ceiling behind Daisey. Reiser’s lighting design also helps set the scene with atmospheric shadows, or bathing the pile in red when the story takes us to a volcano.
Speaking of the story, this one’s about money, specifically the religion of it. Daisey describes a trip he took to the South Pacific island of Tanna, which he describes as the home of the last cargo cult in the world, a worship of Western consumer goods inspired by World War II-era military bases. The John Frum movement on Tanna represents both a reverence for and rejection of Western materialism, a traditional society aware of money and consumerism but purposely living outside it. (John Frum is not a historical person but a sort of archetype of the Westerner.) Daisey traveled there to witness John Frum Day, in which the (greatly distorted) story of America is told in a highly ritualized performance.
The way he describes it, you might at first imagine that the island is something he made up, an allegory to prove a point with echoes of Joe Versus the Volcano. That impression is accentuated by details like the pilot with a long facial scar, milky eye and knife in his boot flying a rickety plane that’s “like the punchline to a joke about planes,” and a description of the island’s pidgin Franglais as sounding “like people making fun of an island language.”
It soon becomes clear that he’s describing an actual journey to “an island that is just beyond the reach of money,” although not so far beyond its reach: in one of many ironies that Daisey describes with relish, the queen of this traditional currency-free society has a degree in macroeconomics.
The thing is, Daisey is such an engaging storyteller, with a hilariously eruptive style and showman’s knack for knowing when to savor or shout a phrase for maximum effect, that even though it’s as true as a story ever is, we’re on board either way. We’re on board even when we might not want to be, as when Daisey describes a white-knuckle, screaming, seemingly doomed plane plunge until the pilot “pulled some amazing dirt-bike bullshit” and skidded the plane to a safe water landing. But the best part of that story is when he talks about the amazing moment of freedom of knowing you’re about do die and can freak out without worrying about how anyone perceives you—the trouble being that if you then don’t die, it’s … “awkward.”
Daisey keeps brings the story around to the fact that we in Western society also observe consumer economics as a religion—and in fact our primary religion. It’s something we think about almost every hour of every day, and we observe its rituals and accept its precepts without question. Our money has no inherent value aside from that assigned to it, which is gauged in relation to other currencies of equally arbitrary value. He drives the point home by having ushers hand each of us a bill of US tender when we walk in, many but not all of them $1 bills. Eventually he explains to us (more or less) what’s up with the money we were handed. He talks about growing up poor in Maine but never really understanding how poor until he got to college and saw what other people had.
You can see what Daisey’s doing with these passages, and there’s some good material in his personal anecdotes about getting rear-ended in a rental car in the Hamptons. But it does feel like he’s working pretty hard to tie it all together at the end, and it winds up being one of his longer monologues at two hours without intermission. And when he starts talking about economics writ large, especially the arcane voodoo of derivatives, it does get a little eye-glazing—which is part of his point, that people get away with all kinds of insane financial shenanigans because smart, sane, moral people have no idea what any of it’s about and wash their hands of it as somebody else’s problem. Ultimately his account of life and adventures on the island sounds much more real and immediate, and more compelling, than his description of American daily life. And maybe that too is part of the point. He suggests that we have more to learn from the islanders of Tanna than they have to learn from us, not in some condescending state-of-innocence way but because they already get where we’re coming from and have already rejected it. Maybe their rituals sound more real and grounded than ours not just because that part of his monologue sounds more developed—which is also true—but because perhaps they are.
SPECIAL FUNTIME BONUS LINKS:
My 2005 San Francisco Chronicle interview with Mike Daisey.
My 2007 East Bay Express review of Daisey’s Great Men of Genius.
Show #2 of 2011, attended January 12.