Monday, November 24, 2008


Photo/Richard Termine

"I can't marry you," says Luciana, a prostitute in Rome, "because you're crazy. You're crazy," she continues, "because you want to marry me." This is just one of the many roundabouts in Joseph Heller's Catch-22, a brilliant anti-war novel that uses a comic tone to expose the paradoxes of fighting for peace, the logical need for war in a capitalist society, and the conflict between the individual and the country. Given those unfortunately timeless themes, it’s no surprise to see Aquila Theatre mounting a new adaptation of the book, nor is it surprising to see them attempting to stage a book which, like Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, wildly leaps from location to location, time to time. (Heller attempted this play in 1971; Mike Nichols made a film version in 1970.) Considering how much has to be cut, how much needs to be contained, the only question is whether or not Aquila is crazy enough to pull it off.

Yes, emphatically so. Director Peter Meinecke might as well be wearing a straightjacket, for he channels the best sort of madness: one which, as paradoxically as anything in Heller’s world, makes perfect sense. Stock black-and-white military footage establishes scenery that is pure propaganda; the minimalist sets (hospital beds, a life raft, a wire-frame bomber cabin) turn war into a low-budget illusion. And then there are the theatrical opposites, stylized scenes that jar our expectations, from over-the-top drama to violent romances and sublimely staged bombing missions. Save for a few overlong set changes, carefully choreographed by Desiree Sanchez, the pace of the play matches Heller’s breakneck prose. Finally, as if things weren’t mad enough, each of the six ensemble members is triple-cast (at least), which makes characters that are already flamboyantly contradictory seem even more two-faced, and gives substance to the paranoia of the central character, Yossarian (John Lavelle).

Lavelle’s measured yet manic portrayal of Yossarian is the heart of the production, both a microcosm and reflection of everything that happens around him. Lavelle resembles the Ron Livingstone of Office Space and Band of Brothers, which is to say that he is both a restless schlub and a hardened soldier. Moreover, he’s got the acting chops to oscillate bravely between the two at the drop of a hat--or more specifically, the change of a light cue. For Catch-22 to work, Yossarian must be both sane and insane, a feat that Lavelle achieves by fully pursuing clear actions—actions which just happen to change in the blink of an eye.

Lavelle’s sense of balance becomes clear whenever he leaves the stage, for the scenes that focus purely on themes—like Colonel Cathcart (David Bishins) and his sycophantic Lt. Col. Korn (Craig Wroe), who are happy to sacrifice men to further their careers—come across as preachy parodies. The weakest moments focus on Milo Minderbinder (Chip Brookes), who takes his capitalist syndicate to the furthest extreme when he contracts with the Germans and uses military supplies to strafe his own camp. Milo, with his safari-like hat and wide-eyed glasses, is meant to mock our values by showing their true costs, but alone, he's a stock character, and stock—in plays as in soup—is meant to enhance the other ingredients, not stand out on its own.

Of course, there's plenty of room in Catch-22 for actors to show off their range, and Mark Alhadeff and Christina Pumariega seize the opportunity. Alhadeff switches from a quiet, bumbling Chaplain to playing Wintergreen, a sleazy slouch who revels in the suffering he dispenses through the mail, whereas Pumariega plays every grown woman in the show, from prostitutes to nurses to grieving mothers, always capturing both the comic highs and the mournful lows. The flavors occasionally fail to mix (Richard Sheridan Willis is outstanding as Doc Daneeka, trying to convince the military he’s not dead, but lost as the bland Major Major Major), but a production this ambitious calls for an adventurous chef like Meinecke.

Here’s a catch: if you’ve read this far, you’re the audience this play is looking for. If you haven’t read this far, then you’ll never read these words. In which case, you’ve read this far, so go on, get a little crazy.

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