“The Last Cargo Cult”
8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. 2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays (no show April 4). Through April 11. $25-$30. Alliance Theatre, Hertz Stage, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. 404-733-5000, alliancetheatre.org.
By Wendell Brock
But even before monologist Mike Daisey can begin his two-hour rant at the Alliance Theatre, he seems to break into a sweat. Apparently, there’s a lot of anger coiled up in that fat little finger, and during the course of “The Last Cargo Cult,” the Maine native with the satirical snarl will vent his rage over the worldwide worship of money and power.
As Daisey sees it, this cult of capitalism spews forth from the bottomless volcanic greed of Wall Street and, thanks to the vagaries of history, war and technology, infiltrates even the most exotic locales of the South Pacific.
Juxtaposing 2008’s near-collapse of the economy with a bookend visit to a cashless tribal culture on the faraway island of Tanna, where World War II introduced airplanes and walkie-talkies to the land of grass skirts, the sly comedian turns his wry observational skills on the tyranny of the dollar bill.
But even artists like Daisey — who is possessed of the intellectual rigor of Spalding Gray and the sputtering spasticness of Chris Farley — have been corrupted by the necessity of the business deal. (To make the point, audience members are given a crisp greenback as they enter the theater and left to decide at the end whether they’ll give it back or furtively slip it into their wallets.)
Like some gonzo National Geographic correspondent, Daisey travels to Tanna for the annual John Frum celebration, in which natives, fascinated by the relics of World War II, act out the cultural history of America in dance, theater and song. Uh-oh. Bearing gifts of blue jeans, Daisey gets to sit on the official dais and witness a pageant of inscrutable symbolism.He also gets invited to participate in a ritual pig-killing in a region he calls the “ground zero of cannibalism.”
What Daisey does, to mixed effect, is segue back and forth between his research mission and his more prosaic experiences back home. In this uneven theatrical exchange directed by Jean-Michele Gregory, money is as constant and necessary as it is detested and vilified. Where would we be without our credit cards, mortgages, insurance policies, bank accounts? Isn’t our thirst for iPods and cellphones just as primal as the islanders’ lust for pig?
Daisey, who signals transitions in his narrative by precisely turning over each page of his outline, is a brilliant performer with pitch-perfect timing. He knows how to work a pause, draw out his consonants, milk every expression for maximum snark. A whispering wallflower he is not.
In his meditation on the cultural arrogance of the Western world, this sit-down comic is as adept at earning laughs as he is sweating pellets. Still, his back-and-forth technique never quite lands as a cohesively packed piece of theatrical cargo; his ideas, however entertaining, are more confrontational than original.
Denouncing the emotional void of materialism, he’s the Wordsworth, Thoreau and Marx of the shock-jock generation. And in his loud-mouth, incendiary, F-bomb-dropping kind of way, he hits his target.