“We talk about money as if it’s a natural force,” the engaging storyteller Mike Daisey says in one of his two solo shows at California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre.
He deconstructs this force in “The Last Cargo Cult,” the more far-reaching of the monologues. (The second carries the intriguing, if slightly misleading, title, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”)
“Cargo Cult” is a meditation on money told like a travel story with side trips. Daisey, whose lefty, anger-fueled perorations are familiar to audiences at New York’s Public Theater, flies to the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu and then the island of Tanna, where money has never caught on.
Instead, the locals barter and practice a “cargo cult,” he tells us, in which a U.S. soldier from World War II named John Frum is worshipped as a god. (They hope he will shower them with Western goods.)
Dressed in black and sitting at a plain wooden table, Daisey speaks for two hours without intermission. He’s funny, smart and profane, using weird voices and improvised sound effects to make his points. Behind him is a gigantic wall of cardboard boxes printed with the consumer product names that the people back in Vanuatu dream about.
Lots of Zingers
He offers a clever assortment of anecdotes and zingers to convince us that money is powerful and not to be trusted. (“The most interesting thing about money is how it’s corrosive of human relationships,” is his somewhat banal mantra.)
Daisey recalls growing up poor in Maine, where the summer visitors looked down on the townies. He admits to renting, rather than owning, his Manhattan apartment. He performs in the Hamptons, where “the public beach costs $40.” (Actually, it’s the parking sticker that costs $40. Walkers swim free.)
“We love money,” he says, “because we can use it to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘This is mine.’”
“The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” dissects another cult -- the one surrounding Apple Inc. and its sexy product line -- and features another trip, to the Chinese city of Shenzhen, where the iPhone is made. The show also tells the story, now legendary in Silicon Valley, of the rise, fall and ascension of co-founder Steve Jobs.
Daisey is an Apple fanatic who can rave about the kerning of type fonts. At the same time, he calls Jobs “the master of the forced upgrade,” or what we used to call “planned obsolescence.”
Things turn darker when Daisey gets to Shenzhen, where Foxconn International Holdings Ltd. operates a factory complex with 430,000 workers.
Daisey explains that Foxconn employees work 12- and 14-hour days, that some stressed-out workers committed suicide and that in response, the company offered employees a significant raise. Daisey describes the nets that were installed to thwart leapers. He interviews employees who are still children.
“I talked with workers 12 years old,” he said, pausing before his punch line: “And do you think Apple doesn’t know?”
“Cargo Cult” runs in repertory through Feb. 20 and “Steve Jobs” through Feb. 27 at 2025 Addison St. in Berkeley. Information: +1-510-647-2949; http://www.berkeleyrep.org. Rating: ***
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(Stephen West is an editor for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)