Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Last Cargo Cult (The Public Theater)

The Last Cargo Cult
December 5, 2009
Mike Daisey (writer)
Jean Michele Gregory (director)

In The Last Cargo Cult, Mike Daisey attacks a simple idea—money—from several angles. In a delightfully pinko series of slices and thrusts, Daisey detaches bills from their economic value simply by using words (which are also abstractions, right?), notes that it's illegal to burn a US dollar but not the American flag, and has ushers hand out the cash he's paid by the Public then asks the audience to decide if he's earned it.

Alone onstage with his yellow legal pad—but abetted backstage by director Jean Michele Gregory and a team of designers—Daisey is simply a storyteller, but an incredibly gifted one. He's got a knack for taking his own measure through remarkably candid self-disclosure. But he's less the heir to Spalding Grey—the resemblance is only formal—than to Kurt Vonnegut. A hilarious and dyspeptic observer of the human animal, Daisey weighs with equal irony a picayune moment in his marriage to Gregory and the mob behavior of hedge fund managers during last September's TARP bailout. 

Much of Cult describes Daisey's expedition to the South Pacific, where he met a tribe that uses cell phones but not money and worships a semi-mythical American GI in the form of a volcano. But the work is vitally political too; it broaches the taboo fact that on September 12, 2008, the world's economy nearly collapsed. Despite that seismic catastrophe, Americans do not have a post-9/12 mindset. Daisey means to provide a catharsis for our economic near-death experience. His success shouldn't be measured in the cash that audiences return to him but in the paroxysms of our laughter.


The Last Cargo Cult plays at the Public Theater (425 Lafayette Street, betw. E. 4th & Astor Place), closing on December 13. Tickets?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

American Treasure (13P)

American Treasure
13P at the Paradise Factory
November 28, 2009
Julia Jarcho (playwright & director) 

Julia Jarcho has written and directed a thriller about the blood curse of American history. A postmodern plot lifts its set-up from Dashiell Hammett—a waif asks a PI to find her sister's killer—but their search through history gets well and truly weird, more Pynchon than Chandler. It's not a spoiler to reveal that the theme of American Treasure is the genocide of America's native people, or that the spirit that animates this script is, in the end, an enigma.

Or it ought to be. American Treasure is compelling stuff, but it's also proof that playwrights should rarely direct their own scripts. With its fragmentary scenes and hopscotch structure, American Treasure should hurtle along like an Indiana Jones movie, albeit one written by Stephen King. But Jarcho saps her script by double- and triple-casting the actors, maybe to save cash or maybe cuz that's modern convention. But more actors would lend the conspiracy weight; in this show, some actors need to be hiding knowledge.

Still, I don't blame the performers. Jenny Seastone Stern, at least, has an uncanny presence that fits the show's tone perfectly (after her perfs here & in The Bereaved, I can't wait to see her again). Aaron Landsman, however, gets in the script's way, and ends up looking tense and confused. He doesn't communicate the double-meanings and dramatic ironies that the dialogue's packed with. But another director could've guided him better.

All this adds up to a stiff climax, which has Jarcho busily underlining the play's message instead of playing up the riddle of history. To say that American genocide is literally unspeakable makes a good graduate thesis but it's tough theater—although the lovely set, designed by Jason Simms to look remarkably like a human diorama at the Museum of Natural History, is itself a sort of winking clue that ironies can be staged. Jarcho's script gives me the heebie-jeebies; it's worth a read. But onstage, the mystery is missed.


American Treasure plays at the Paradise Factory (64 East 4th Street, betw. Second Ave & the Bowery), closing on December 12. Tickets?

Photo credit: Rob Strong