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The Last Cargo Cult

Mike Daisey's excellently crafted tale interweaves his visit to a remote South Pacific island with reflections on the global economy.

Mike Daisey in The Last Cargo Cult
(© Joan Marcus)
Mike Daisey is a brilliant storyteller, as amply demonstrated in his latest solo show, The Last Cargo Cult, now at the Public Theater. What Daisey does so well is to tell hysterically funny stories while at the same time challenging audiences to think about some very serious issues.

One thread of his monologue charts the trip he took to a remote South Pacific island to participate in a religious festival inspired by all of the stuff American troops left behind after World War II, giving birth to the so-called "Cargo Cults." Daisey details his nearly disastrous flight, his interaction with the locals, and the rituals that he sees performed. Interwoven with these tales are his reflections on the global economy, and particularly the events of last fall when it seemed we were on the brink of absolute disaster.

But if you think a play that incorporates economic theory into its narrative would be a bit on the dry side, Daisey consistently proves you wrong as he wrings humor out of the most mundane things and makes hard-to-grasp concepts not only understandable but also hilarious. In one of the most daring things I've ever seen in a theatrical performance, Daisey uses actual money -- from one dollar bills to hundred dollar bills -- to involve the audience and make extremely personal his themes of economic power and responsibility.

Expertly guided by director Jean-Michele Gregory, Daisey pulls out all the stops in terms of pacing, vocal modulation, and facial expression. The look he gives when describing eating fermented yam paste is an image not soon to be forgotten, and the monologue is so lively that you're likely to forget that he spends the entirety of it sitting behind a desk.

Peter Ksander's scenic design consists of piles and piles of crates, boxes, and luggage, while sound designer Daniel Erdberg and lighting designer Russell H. Champa incorporate several subtle and not-so-subtle effects to reinforce the rhythms and mood of the performance. While these enhancements add much to the overall production, Daisey hardly needs them in order to get across his excellently crafted tale.