Mo Money Mo ProblemsBerkeley Rep Production Of 'The Last Cargo Cult' Explores American Influence in South Pacific
Monday, January 24, 2011
Category: Arts & Entertainment > Theater
Everyone likes a good story; a well-told, funny tale can break the ice in the most frigid social situations. Fortunately for the East Bay, monologist Mike Daisey is a master storyteller, and if you enjoy/respect stories and their tellers then "The Last Cargo Cult" is well worth a trip to Berkeley Repertory Theater.
"Cargo Cult" is part ethnographic travelogue, part Jeremiad. The former deals with Daisey's trip to Tanna, a remote island in the South Pacific. Like most travel essayists, Daisey mines the difference of the natives for material. In this form, it means a lot of jokes about penis sheaths. But Tanna's allure to Daisey isn't limited to mere Orientalism. He is interested in two of Tanna's particulars: a money-less society and a cargo cult that worships American G.I.s.
One of the highlights of Daisey's performance is a blow-by-blow account of John Frum Day, Tanna's annual celebration of Americana. The story is full of impromptu American flags, blue-jean-clad natives and American history told through musical theater. The people of Tanna, as Daisey paints them, revere the country but cannot comprehend its addiction to commerce.
This love/hate relationship with the United States echoes a lot of Daisey's own sentiments. He intertwines his travelogue with a critical reading of American consumerism. "WE HAVE AWESOME SHIT!" Daisey admits, but it might be so awesome that we (Americans) have begun to worship it. To hammer the point home, a mountain of cardboard boxes lines the back of the stage. The stage is transformed into a cathedral of commerce, the buttresses adorned with brown cubes emblazoned with idols iMac, Zappos and Ikea.
Daisey's attempt to investigate human relationships mediated primarily by money is by far the most ambitious part of the work. In these moments, Daisey loses his comic veneer and steers towards eschatology. His meditations on the financial meltdown of Aught Eight is spine-tingling. All the laughs during the island section of his monologue help ease the ensuing shock of financial damnation lauded on America and the audience. Humor helps Daisey avoid the landmine that is preachiness, and allows him to thrive in a work that is at once morally passionate and passionately moral.
Levity helps ground "Cargo Cult" and it owes mostly to Daisey's masterful delivery. He plays the audience like a fiddle, winding them up and down with manic screeds and soft-spoken dead-pan. Daisey pokes and curses the gods with a "Fuck!" so piercing that the crowd jumped the first few times.
One critic from SFist harangued "Cargo Cult" for essentially preaching to the choir, claiming that the ideas aren't new or challenging to patrons of Mission/Oakland/Berkeley coffee dens. Such a reading assumes Bay Area residents are as progressively minded as San Francisco happy meal killers. But even if you have heard the story before, go and see Daisey give new life to a familiar tune.
Joke about penis sheaths with Derek at [email protected]
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