By Mike Daisey. Directed by Jean-Michele Gregory. At the Public Theater. (CLOSED)
Mike Daisey's latest solo show The Last Cargo Cult receives near-unanimous praise for its timely, hilarious, and poignant exploration of the American financial system and the crises and mythologies that have issued from it. Daisey tells the story of his visit to Tanna, a Pacific island nation that worships American consumer goods as holy totems, but which, ironically, doesn't have a monetary system of its own. He weaves details of this voyage with commentary on America's bewildering 2008 meltdown. Some critics want an intermission to break up the 2+ hour monologue, but that's about as far as the negative criticism goes. Frequent outlier Matthew Murray may disagree with some of Daisey's ideas, but that's exactly the kind of confrontation Daisey aims for anyway. As Nicole Villenueve of Backstage puts it, "even if you don't agree with Daisey, the thoughts he churns up will make sure you get your money's worth."
(Sam Thielman) Almost nobody brings to mind Noam Chomsky and Oliver Hardy simultaneously, but Mike Daisey can pull it off. With "The Last Cargo Cult," the monologist perfectly balances goofball humor on one hand, and on the other, genuine anger at the financial gamesmen who broke the economy and then made us pay for it. Of course it's more complicated (and funnier) than that, with Daisey interweaving his trip to a tiny Pacific island where they venerate America and "all our awesome shit." In fact, it's an incredibly ballsy and humble indictment of the banking system, American materialism and the audience.
(Nicole Villenueve) Daisey calls himself a storyteller, but in the first few minutes of his latest monologue, "The Last Cargo Cult," you get the sense that something much more unusual is happening. Maybe it's Daisey's range as a performer. He travels from comic outbursts featuring trademark facial contortions to moments of such quiet sincerity that you can hear a dollar bill drop in the audience ... Or maybe it's how Daisey constantly asks us to engage, not just with participatory gimmicks but simply through the story itself. After important points, he asks, "Isn't it?"—forcing you to confront your own feelings about the material à la Brecht. And even if you don't agree with Daisey, the thoughts he churns up will make sure you get your money's worth from "The Last Cargo Cult."
Time Out New York A-
(Diane Snyder) Collaborating once again with his wife, director Jean-Michele Gregory, Daisey remains equal parts philosopher, historian and social critic, improvising from an outline and never moving from his table and chair. As moments of serene pontification give way to shout-talking outbursts, he brands bankers “financial terrorists” and our fiscal system a “pyramid scheme,” and intersperses personal anecdotes of his island adventures. At times it may taste like a feast with too many side dishes, but Daisey’s storytelling finesse always guarantees a delectable spread.
Theatre Mania A-
(Dan Bacalzo) 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.
New York Post A-
(Frank Scheck) His rambling digressions are frequently the funniest parts, such as his accounts of his encounters with a friendly baby pig and a potentially financially disastrous auto accident. But they also dilute the show’s impact: Running nearly two hours without an intermission, “The Last Cargo Cult” is as exhausting as it is entertaining. Even so, it’s the most fully realized effort yet in what’s shaping up to be a major theatrical career for Daisey.
New York Times A-
(Jason Zinoman) The way Mr. Daisey makes his arguments, more than the arguments themselves, is what makes him one of the elite performers in the American theater. Sometimes he lays them out straightforwardly, but more often he expresses ideas indirectly through story and, increasingly, through a self-conscious use of language ... In his new show, the seventh that I’ve seen, Mr. Daisey’s longtime director, Jean-Michele Gregory, helped him expand beyond a Spalding Gray aesthetic. For the first time there is an actual set dominated by a mountain of boxes, designed by Peter Ksander. Mr. Daisey still sits down and turns rumpled papers, but he has added more flamboyance to his repertory. He curses more, punctuates several jokes with a Sam Kinison scream; and he really has perfected the art of juxtaposing rubbery facial expressions with absolute stillness.
Curtain Up B+
(Deirdre Donovan) The feisty yarn-spinner new monologue, The Last Cargo Cult, is based on his time on a remote South Pacific island named Tanna, where the natives worship America at the base of an active volcano. At two hours with no intermission, it's long; but Daisey redeems the length by hitting us with some probing questions about American materialism ... It's easy to fall under the spell of Daisey's sense of humor, and powerful story telling. In this latest monologue we learn about the historical origins and development of cargo cults and how cult members still adhere to the same belief system today.
Talkin' Broadway B-
(Matthew Murray) 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 ... 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.
Variety A 13; Backstage A 13; TONY A- 12; Theatre Mania A- 12; New York Post A- 12; New York Times A- 12; Curtain Up B+ 11; Talkin' Broadway B- 9. TOTAL: 94/8 = 11.75 (A-)