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The worldwide headquarters and hindquarters of freelance writer Chris Klimek

Money Talks: Mike Daisey and The Last Cargo Cult

Chris Klimek

Mike Daisey has a money problem.

It isn't that he has too little, or, God knows, too much. To hear the 36-year-old raconteur tell it, his money problem is the same one that afflicts us all.

“Money — currency — is corrosive to human relationships," he says flatly. "It corrodes the human connections that create communities, and replaces them with fiduciary connections."

Strange talk from a man who once made his living as a business development executive for Amazon, an experience he chronicled in his 2002 monologue and memoir of the late-90s tech bubble, 21 Dog Years. But on a break from preparations at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, four days before his latest solo show opens here, Daisey has the confidence of certainty, however provocative his premise. Even in what is ostensibly an informal chat, he unspools his argument in lucid, flowing paragraphs, seldom restarting a sentence the way amateur conversationalists are prone to do.

Of course, Daisey is no amateur. Since 21 Dog Years put him on the map, and on The Late Show with David Letterman, his dozen-plus semi-improvisational monologues have solidified his rep as one of the most imaginative and entrancing talkers in America.

The title of his new one, The Last Cargo Cult, suggests an "Indiana Jones" adventure more than it does a treatise on how the global financial crisis happened and why it's probably going to happen again. And by Daisey standards at least, it does offer something of the visual lure of a would-be blockbuster.

I find Daisey standing in the back row at Woolly, taking in his opus's still-under-construction set, a temple-like structure of stacked boxes. He won't be landing any helicopters on stage, but it's still a new thing for a Daisey monologue to have a visual element beyond that of a man who with his smooth, round face and body resembles a Buddha wearing a toupee, seated at table with a sheaf of papers and a glass of water. When I mention the set, he says, "I prefer to think of it as an environment." He points out that all the boxes are real packaging from real consumables, Apple computers and strollers and DVD players.

Woolly audiences who saw Daisey perform 2008's If You See Something, Say Something, a riff on post-9/11 hysteria, or last year's How Theatre Failed America, about, er, how playhouses are flailing to renew their aging audience base, know he has a rare aptitude for distilling complicated matters into relatable human moments.

Like his other monologues, Cargo Cult is directed by his wife, Jean-Michele Gregory. He points out that the show was born here at Woolly in two workshop performances last summer.

The verb is deliberate -- Daisey speaks of his monologues as though they're children. "They keep warping and twisting and shifting, like organic things." He works from outlines, but never a full script, forcing light operators to takes cues from his page turns or his gestures, which -- curiously for so garrulous a fellow -- tend to lock in place from night to night more than his words do. Following the two test performances at Woolly, full runs in Portland, Ore. and New York City matured the show. "It's a young adult now, with a job and an apartment and obligations," says Daisey.

Rearing this peculiar child tested even his mighty tale-telling prowess. Making a compelling story out of high finance turns out to be just as tough as it sounds.

“They call economics ‘the dismal science,’" Daisey says. "That’s not an error. It is unpleasant to study, and not particularly evocative. It has the complexity of biology and chemistry, but it lacks the grandeur of being beyond the mind of man."

Before he decided to build a show around it, he'd had "a fair layman's understanding of macroeconomics." He'd read The Economist, but not The General Theory of Economics. So he assigned himself homework. "What I’ve discovered is that economics is singularly ill-equipped to deal with the actual, human questions of what we’re doing, why we’re here, and what we want,” he continues. On to Page 2.

Continued from Page 1.

Happily, the other major component of The Last Cargo Cult is considerably brighter. Interwoven with his survey of fiscal armageddon is an account of Daisey's February 2009 visit to Tanna, an island in the unindustrialized South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, where the Army set up temporary outposts during World War II.

"They were only there for a few years, with their refrigerators and radios and chocolate and cigarettes," says Daisey. "Then they vanished. Nothing makes something magical more than seeing it and wanting it, then having it removed." After the Americans packed up and went home, sects that considered the yanks' left-behind consumer goods to be religious totems -- cargo cults -- sprang up in their wake.

Though currency has come into limited use on Tanna, the majority of its residents live "in custom," i.e. free of financial obligation, the way most Western children live with their parents. But on Tanna, the family structure encompasses the entire tribe.

The subject of cargo cults has appealed to Daisey "as its own resonant metaphor" for years. He didn't know if there was a show in it until he read about John Frum Day. Every Feb. 15, the denizens of Tanna gather at the base of an active volcano, raise the American flag, and tell the history of America, as they understand it, in song and dance. Daisey happened to hear of the ritual in November 2008, just as the global markets were melting down. "I had this moment where I realized I had to go to the island," Daisey says.

That moment is typical of Daisey's binary creative process. "I only can work on things that I'm obsessed with. Preferably there's more than one obsession, and they're in collision with one another," he explains. Moreover, "I have to believe there is an essential need in my society to hear about this [subject]. Lots of things don't pass that litmus test."

If making economics into an engrossing narrative was hard, clearing the relevance hurdle was never easier. Daisey feels a grim deja vu: The show that made his name, 21 Dog Years, was in part about a financial bubble a decade ago. That one was merely national. But he's taking Cargo Cult to Ireland and Australia this year, which he can do because the 2008 crash reverberated planet-wide.

"The spikes keep getting higher and the drops deeper," he laments. "But there's no understanding, and certainly no political will, to make the hard choices or ask the hard questions that come from that."

"No economic reform has moved forward to the point of even being discussed," he rails. "By the time it is discussed, the banks will be making record profits, as they are now, again, already. The Dow will be back up. No one is going to want to discuss what's wrong. No one. Nothing is going to happen."

America, we need to talk.

The Last Cargo Cult is at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through Feb. 7 Tickets are available here.

Still hungry for more Mike Daisey? Read some great outtakes from our interview.

A 40% shorter version of this story appears in today's Examiner.