Mike Daisey is in the money with ‘The Last Cargo Cult’

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Mike Daisey is obsessed with money, and he’s not alone.

In “The Last Cargo Cult,” his new one-man show at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, the great monologist travels all the way to a tiny South Sea island in search of a place that is “just beyond the reach of money.”

Except, of course, no place is beyond the reach of money. The island is so remote, its inhabitants use cell phones as flashlights, but they worship American wealth, and once a year, they stage a lavish celebration in its honor.

Daisey, whose previous shows at Berkeley Rep have covered a wide range of topics, is both witness and participant in this odd-but-true tale. The title, he explains, derives from U.S. outposts created in the Pacific during World War II; when the Americans left, the natives established a religion in their memory.

Written by Daisey and directed by his longtime collaborator (and wife), Jean-Michele Gregory, the two-hour show is an engaging blend of adventure story, personal revelation and social critique.

Daisey, seated at a table center stage, recounts his island experience in gripping detail, from his hair-raising arrival in a poorly piloted cargo plane to a blazing epiphany on the rim of an active volcano.  

Many of the episodes are hilarious. Daisey is a stranger in a strange land, and his narrative careens through a bewildering array of sights, sounds and tastes: pig hunts and “Scream” masks, an unfortunate encounter with fermented yam paste, and ritual dances that “put Broadway to shame.”

Yet Daisey sets his sights on larger themes, drawing parallels between the islanders’ faith in American commerce and our own beliefs about money.

After references to IKEA and iPods; the liberal Maine college that awakened him to class distinctions; and an extended riff on insurance following a fender-bender in the Hamptons, he concludes that money is just a giant pyramid scheme but admits that he can’t imagine a world without it.

Gregory stages the show effectively.  The evening’s opening salvo — ushers handing out dollar bills to the audience — pays off later, and Seth Reiser’s set, a wall of empty boxes from various high-tech companies, offers visual proof of our collective wealth.

Still, as Daisey suggests, wealth and value are not the same thing.

Nor is he finished exploring the subject: Berkeley Rep will mount a second Daisey show, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” later this month. If it’s as good as “Last Cargo Cult,” it’ll be well worth the price of admission.

THEATER REVIEW

Mike Daisey’s The Last Cargo Cult


Where:
Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley

When: Various times Tuesdays-Sundays; closes Feb. 20

Tickets: $14.50 to $73

Contact: (510) 647-2949, www.berkeleyrep.org

Note: The show is staged in repertory with “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” which runs Thursday through Feb. 27.

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