The Last Cargo Cult

For a man who spends two hours sitting behind a desk and talking, Mike Daisey reveals an energy and grace in his movement worthy of a tai chi chuan master. Steepling his fingers to make a point, then softly melting them to the side, storyteller Daisey explores in his current offering at Woolly Mammoth the peculiarities of the natives in the islands called Vanuatu and the big island called Long, and shows them to be hilariously ridiculous in equal measures.

If his analysis of the past years’ financial embarrassments is rather glib, bad economics, Daisey’s perception that we experience the spongy bottom of the current recession to be disappointingly mild—in his word, “AWK-ward,”—is acute. And his parsing of the false egalitarianism at a New England liberal arts college into the contents of the boxes unloaded by each arriving freshman, some of them with technological riches that inspire him to say, “our shit is AWESOME,” is well executed.

He is better off on his trip to a speck of land in the South Pacific, the island of Tanna, to observe the playing out of an annual rite, part village festival, part perverse appropriation of Western culture. At one point in the spectacle, a man is chased in circles by another man, the pursuer wearing a fright mask from the movie Scream: this is explained to Daisey by an interpreter as “President Obama being chased by a dragon.” Oh-kayy. Daisey, a generously proportioned man, figures that he is a match for anything unusual or unpleasant on offer by Tanna’s cuisine. But, as he comically bellows in a richly modulated voice, “the fermented yam paste proved me wrong.”

It’s Daisey’s control of his polychrome voice, which can range from the avuncularity of Garrison Keillor to the manic jeremiads of Chris Farley, often in the same paragraph, sometimes in the same sentence, that makes for such an entertaining evening.

  • The Last Cargo Cult, created and performed by Mike Daisey, directed by Jean-Michelle Gregory, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, Washington