Daisey's new monologue goes to Bali Hai
Monologuist Mike Daisey performs his latest pice, "The Last Cargo Cult," at Seattle's Richard Hugo House Aug. 7-22, 2009.
Seattle Times theater critic
"The Last Cargo Cult"By Mike Daisey, opens tonight and plays Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 22 at the Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave., Seattle; $20 (206-322-7030 or www.brownpapertickets.com).
Ah, what some people will do for their art.
It wasn't enough for acclaimed monologuist Mike Daisey to suddenly drop everything, and make the 20-hour air journey to Tanna, a South Pacific island in the archipelago of Vanuatu.
No, for his new show "The Last Cargo Cult" (opening tonight at Richard Hugo House) he also boned up on macroeconomics.
"We went on vacation in Mexico, and I'd be lying on the beach reading this big stack of books on the subject," recalls Daisey, an ex-Seattleite and the prolific auteur of such other one-man shows as the acclaimed "21 Dog Years: Doing Time@Amazon.com" and a "Great Men of Science" series.
So what does a remote isle have to do with Wall Street derivatives?
Trust Daisey, an intellectual omnivore, and his director-collaborator (and wife) Jean-Michele Gregory, to connect the dots.
Inspired by the world financial crisis, and the odd history of "cargo cults," the New York-based Daisey says he's really exploring the thorny relationship between human beings and money.
And he's tinkering with "The Last Cargo Cult" on the road, before its official debut at the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival in September.
Cargo cults, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, are "Melanesian religious groups characterized by the belief that material wealth ... can be obtained through ritual worship."
"I've been fascinated by this anthropological phenomenon for years," says Daisey. "I have a lot of things I'm obsessed with, and the monologues emerge when two or more of these obsessions come into conflict."
Daisey's interest in the financial crisis smacked into his cargo-cult curiosity, when he recently learned of Tanna's John Frum Day celebration each February.
"The natives actually worship Frum and tell the history of America on that day, in dance and song," he explains."I felt certain I had to be there for it this year."
So who is John Frum? According to local lore, this mysterious white man appeared on Tanna some 60-70 years ago, and told the unmodernized natives to reject Western religion and keep their native ways. If they did, he promised, they'd be rewarded with great wealth.
That prophecy seemed to come true soon after, when World War II brought a vast American military force to the region, and with them modern products new to the Tannese: airplanes, Jeeps, Coca-Cola. (Tanna, by the way, was writer James Michener's prototype for the romantic isle of Bali Hai in his book "Tales of the South Pacific," and later the Broadway musical "South Pacific.")
The Tannese (who gained their independence from French-Anglo rule in 1980) clung to the belief that Frum's dictates led to prosperity. And Daisey's 2009 travels on the island yielded much material for his new show — enough, in fact, to also fill a book he may write.
"It was fascinating to see how these people used American tools of progress to cling to their own pre-Christian belief system," he says. "The tension between the two things really interested me and made me think, aren't we like that too? Americans want love, compassion and openness in our society, and believe we can get them through money."
To learn more about our own financial "religion," Daisey spoke with such famed economists as Nobel Prize laureate Paul Krugman (whose syndicated column runs on The Seattle Times' Opinion page).
"I wanted to know why our financial tools have become more and more abstract, and why, after every financial boom, there's always a fall."
You're bound to pick up morsels of arcane knowledge from a Daisey show. But you're also likely to laugh at the absurdities and ironies his first-person tales glean from his own adventures, and human endeavors in general. And Daisey delivers such insights with the theatrical authority and flair of a Gen-X Orson Welles.
He hopes that in another of his frequent trips to Seattle (where he and Gregory still have family), he'll perform a run of "If You See Something Say Something," a 2008 show about our homeland response to terrorism. It won raves Off Broadway last year and was recently filmed.
For now, though, Daisy is set to keep honing "The Last Cargo Cult," in a city that continues to welcome his unique take on our mad, mad, mad, mad world.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org
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