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The Last Cargo Cult

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Mike Daisey
Photo by Joan Marcus.

If the price of theatre tickets horrifies you, a quick journey to The Public Theater's Newman Theater before December 13 is in order. That's where Mike Daisey is performing his latest solo show, The Last Cargo Cult, and arguing both that the cost of admittance is greater than what's publicized and that, when it comes to changing it, he's willing to put his money where his mouth is.

This is not an exaggeration. Upon entering the theater, the ushers hand you money. Actual money. Bills. In one-, five-, 10-, 20-, 50-, or 100-dollar denominations. The "official" significance of this is revealed only gradually over the course of the two-hour evening, which has been directed by Daisey's wife, Jean-Michele Gregory. But, unofficially, if you're not thrilled with what you see, you may be able to recoup some or all of your purchase price.

Or can you? The foundational question of Daisey's show is whether the financial system - even when represented on a scale as small as this one - is a help or a hindrance. So pocketing that money if the show outrages you - and, depending on how much you love capitalism, it might - isn't a clear-cut proposition. What did it cost Daisey to give you that money? And who suffers if you don't give it back?

Daisey tackles these issues in his traditional way, complete with yellow cue sheets (he performs extemporaneously), glass of water, hand towel for wiping away perspiration, and a table and chair (although scenic designer Peter Ksander has provided a backdrop of dozens of cardboard boxes). And, oh yes, flights of fancy that send him halfway around the world and back in pursuit of an answer to the conundrum of the day.

His target this time is Tanna, a small island in the South Pacific's Vanuatu archipelago, which celebrates American consumerism every year in an elaborate, nine-hour celebration called John Frum Day. Ostensibly named after an American who arrived on the island when America occupied it during World War II, it pays adoring tribute to the clothing, technology, and other advancements that have made the United States the world leader in, well, acquisition.

But, well, Tanna does that only once a year. For Americans, it's a 24-7-365 worship cycle, and one that's led to both a detachment from a greater social reality and, as last year's economic stumblings proved, the construction of a system that's best seen as phantasmal by those who aren't involved in it. The derivatives market, Daisey claims, tops $126 trillion - and no, that isn't a typo. If it bothers you that so much money that doesn't even exist can so grimly affect the very livelihood of millions of people who barely understand what derivatives are, you'll find a kindred spirit in Daisey.

Not everyone will agree. As The Last Cargo Cult vacillates between Tanna and the U.S., it demonstrates some trouble with balance. Daisey's declamations are more often simplistic than profound. "I think wealth is defined by hunger," he says, as though "hunger" is by necessity a negative trait. He may claim that "Money is corrosive to human relationships," but is money itself the problem, or the people who wield it? And it's hard to view statements like "Everything you have has a price and nothing has value" as anything more than a dangerous generalization.

Daisey makes his case far more effectively when he focuses on the evolution of money from currency to a symbol. His history of money, from its physical advent 5,000 years ago to bonds, stocks, hedging, and the vitally nonexistent derivatives of today, is chilling. And regardless of the state of your personal investment portfolio, Daisey encourages you to question the wisdom of any of it with statements that are far too reality-based for anyone's good: "Once the numbers have become irrational, who can gainsay them?"

He comes so close to flat-out saying that money itself is an irrational concept, however, that it can be hard to digest the rest of the play as much more than hyperbole. Granted, as a performer, Daisey's greatest strength is his ability to turn the smallest reaction into a full-out, comic psychotic break, and his recreations here of everything from a potential plane crash to a minor traffic collision and encountering a baby pig on Tanna don't disappoint. But in attacking the system on which advanced society has been built, he hasn't offered a particularly compelling alternative. Most people won't be easily convinced that living in the jungle and hunting pigs is somehow a more enlightened state of being than having an apartment in Bushwick and ordering bacon from FreshDirect.

At least Daisey admits and embraces the paradox, and never attempts to pretend he's not also a part of it. Chances are you'll remember his lesson with the cash a lot more than you will others' rants about sacrifices they aren't willing to make themselves. Daisey says that "the entire financial system depends on trust," and he proves here that you can trust him to take the chances he demands of others. But if that trust is there, the substance of The Last Cargo Cult as anything more than an amusing, what-if speculation too frequently is not.

The Last Cargo Cult
Through December 13
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Performances: Tues 7:00 pm, Wed 7:00 pm, Th 7:00 pm, Fri 7:00 pm, Sat 7:00 pm, Sun 2:00 pm, Sun 7:00 pm
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Public Theater

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