Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

The Last Cargo Cult

Mike Daisey
A solo performance by Mike Daisey is a one-of-a-kind experience. Seated at a desk, working from notes, Daisey builds communion with his audience as he summons forth his experiences and insights into the unlikeliest of topics: in the case of The Last Cargo Cult, now at Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, the spiritual underpinnings of the global financial crisis.

In a performance that lasts almost two hours with no intermission, Daisey starts with two divergent strands and meticulously braids them together. The first is the story of his visit to an isolated South Pacific island where the natives are members of a "cargo cult"—people who had no exposure to the world beyond their own shores until World War II brought American soldiers and, with them, the sort of belongings and beliefs that Daisey describes as "awesome shit." The second is a lesson in economics and faith, how the international monetary system could never work unless people believe it will work.

He states his premise forthrightly. "Our financial system is the primary religion of the First World," Daisey suggests. "In America, you can burn the flag, but you're forbidden by law from burning money."

As Daisey explains, the residents of the island of Tanna never had a name for their traditional culture until the intrusion of the outside world changed things forever. Now they refer to the old ways as "custom"—when people looked after each other and no one needed money because they had everything they needed—but that is no longer enough. They have acquired the hunger for possessions that he sees as the heart of modern society.

Lest this sound preachy or too much like a lecture, rest assure that Daisey keeps the laughs coming. Whether he's describing a ceremonial meal on the island of Tanna during the nine-hour celebration of the cult's "John Frum Day" (when the natives portray tableaux of American history including "Obama being chased by a dragon") or recounting an incident in the Hamptons involving his wife and director, Jean-Michel Gregory, and a rental car, he's always engaging—until he sucker-punches the audience with an unexpected realization or two.

One gets the sense that, rather than directing Daisey in specific ways, Gregory serves more in the manner of a musical conductor, highlighting moods and maintaining the flow. Helen Q. Huang's scenic design, consisting of precarious piles of packing crates and cartons, and Andrew F. Griffin's frankly theatrical lighting fit the mood admirably.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
The Last Cargo Cult
January 11th —February 7th
Created and performed by Mike Daisey
Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory
641 D St. N.W., Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-393-3939 or

Photo: Stan Barouh