For two decades during the twentieth century, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. wrote some of the most important fiction coming out of America. The six novels which comprise his earliest and best work – Player Piano, The Sirens of Titan, Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater, and Slaughterhouse-5 – were a riot of strange concepts and provocative ideas, which he presented with great technical boldness and control. He showed that it was possible to write a literary novel which was also science fiction. And he wrote with a great and furious wit. His prose style was closer to Mark Twain than anyone except – Mark Twain.
Cat’s Cradle – the only novel ever to win its author both a Hugo nomination and a Masters’ degree in Anthropology – is being given its first stage run at Catholic University’s Callan Theatre by Longacre Lea, thanks to Kathleen Akerley’s perhaps-too-faithful adaptation. It follows the quest of the writer Jonah (Michael Glenn) as he attempts to discover what the late Felix Hoenikker, the (fictional) co-inventor of the atomic bomb, did on the day it was exploded over Hiroshima. (He played cat’s cradle with his six-year-old son). Hoenikker, his old boss Dr. Breed (Christopher Henley) says approvingly, was a researcher into pure, not applied, science. He didn’t care how his research was applied; he was engaged in the quest for answers. One of the projects he was working on before his death was something that would turn water into a solid at temperatures below one hundred thirty degrees Fahrenheit. Water so modified would thereafter continue to modify all water in which it comes into contact, thus threatening to make the whole of the earth’s water, in Breed’s phrase, “hard as a desk.” Hoenikker called this project “ice-nine”.
Time passes, and now Jonah is on a plane to San Lorenzo, where he will interview Julian Castle (Michael John Casey), the heroic doctor who has established a hospital to care for all the suffering poor in that miserable country. He meets the American ambassador, Horlick Minton (Henley) and his wife, Claire (Marcia Kirtland) and a bumptious Midwestern American couple (Casey and Heather Haney). Most importantly, though, he meets Hoenikker’s very tall daughter Angela (Danny Gavigan) and his very small son Newton (Suzanne Richard)…and he discovers that they will soon meet another son, Franklin (Joe Brack).
In San Lorenzo, things get weird. The country is in the grips of Bokononism, a religion which holds that the things we quest after, even the consolation of religion itself, are all nonsense. Bokononism is illegal, made punishable by the island’s ruler Papa Monzano (Casey) with death through impalement on a giant hook. However, we find later that Bokonon (Casey) himself arranged for the religion to be condemned, in order to enhance its popularity.
Jonah meets Castle – who turns out to be a bitter cynic – and Castle’s son Philip (Jay Hardee), but when he meets Franklin his life takes a radical turn. Franklin, who aspired to be nothing more than a model-maker in a hobbyist’s shop when he was in the States, is now a Major General in the San Lorenzo army, fiancée to Monzano’s beautiful daughter Mona (Abby Wood) and about to inherit the presidency from the dying Monzano. Franklin wants nothing to do with it, and begs Jonah to take the Presidency from him. This thought terrifies Jonah, but he finds himself a little braver after Franklin throws Mona into the deal, and when Mona introduces Jonah into a Bokononistic ritual in which the soles of their bare feet touch (the mingling of souls, you see), Jonah is ready for the rigors of leadership. After Monzano receives the last rites (the Bokononistic last rites, of course) Jonah prepares for his inauguration.
That’s when we learn what happened to the ice-nine.
You see the problem, I think. Cat’s Cradle is a slender novel, but it is absolutely stuffed with incident and characters. I have told barely half the story, and Akerley’s adaptation gives us thirty-eight characters (some quite minor) divided among nine actors. Vonnegut had many targets – the irresponsibility of scientists, the folly of war, the obnoxiousness of Americans in other countries, the gullibility of humans – and he was determined to give each one of them its turn in the dock. Akerley labors mightily to give voice to all of Vonnegut’s hobby-horses. But it is heavy going at the start, where Jonah’s efforts (and ours) to understand a man now dead seem doomed, and on the plane, where Jonah is introduced to an army of bizarre characters, some without apparent purpose.
If you find your attention wandering during the first part of the production, hang in there. When things start to happen – when Jonah is in San Lorenzo and his world opens up in unexpected ways – the production cooks, and cooks hard. Whatever misgivings I have about Akerley’s adaptation, her direction is spot-on. I have never seen Casey better. His Julian Castle is unforgettable, and so is his obnoxious Midwesterner, in a completely different way. Henley, too, is at the top of his game, both as Dr. Breed and, particularly, as Ambassador Minton, where he gives us a plainspun speech in a deeply moving manner. Kirtland is absolutely convincing as his wife, who can tell things you wouldn’t expect through indexing. Gavigan and Richard each have the additional challenge of acting cross-gender and they both pull it off, without fuss. Hardee does a great job as Philip Castle and also as the frenetic Dr. von Koenigswald, who administers the last rites to Monzano. Joe Brack, who may be one of the most gifted actors in Washington, is absolutely fabulous as Franklin, and Glenn does an exceptional job anchoring the play. Although Jonah is several keys lower and less strange than the characters who surround him, Glenn’s skills are always near the surface; at one point he is called upon to mimic every character who is with him in San Lorenzo, and he does so with uncanny accuracy.
The technical work in the intimate Callan Theatre space is astonishing. Neil McFadden’s sound design is so specific that it becomes a narrative device. Even more impressive is the way Longacre Lea portrayed the process by which ice-nine makes its evil magic. It is unclear from the Web site (there is no program) who is responsible for turning people into statues but Jameson Shroyer serves as Technical Director and
And – I probably don’t have to mention this – Vonnegut’s prose is simply beautiful. I am now thinking of the Bokononian last rites, which would be an addition to the sacramental service of any religion, but there are literally hundreds of lines which provoke, amuse, sweeten and sanctify.
The good outweighs the bad in this production, by a significant margin. But the good could be still better. Vonnegut once published a list of rules for short stories. Two of them were “start as close to the end as possible” and “every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.” The challenge of converting a novel into a play (or a movie) is that a play’s duration is closer to that of a short story than a novel. The application of Vonnegut’s rules might be useful to the hard task of reducing the novel to manageable size.
(Please note that Kirtland reviewed several productions in the 2009 Fringe Festival for DCTS. This has not affected the objectivity of my review.)
Adapted by Kathleen Akerley from a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Directed by Kathleen Akerley
Produced by Longacre Lea
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Cat’s Cradle plays thru Sept 5, 2010.