nytheatre.com review by Richard Hinojosa
February 23, 2008
I'm a big Vonnegut fan. So when I read about Untitled Theater Company #61's production of Cat's Cradle I was quite excited yet rather uncertain because it is billed as a "Calypso Musical" based on Kurt Vonnegut's 1963 novel. This made me think that I was going to see a musical that was more of an homage or a very liberally adapted show that is inspired by the novel's themes and characters but, thankfully, this is not the case.
The story is narrated by an author named John, who is writing a book about what some particular folks were doing on the day they dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. He tells the story in reflection, bringing us up to date as to how he arrived in his current situation, living on a tiny Caribbean island named San Lorenzo. There he converts to a partly nihilistic and partly humanistic faith, called Bokononism after its leader. The children of the "father" of the atomic bomb are all there and they have a secret. Before their father passed away he invented a dangerous substance called Ice-Nine—a substance that could potentially destroy the world as we know it—and each of them carries a little bit of it with them. Fate, it would seem, is not without a sense of humor, as the purpose of them all being in this particular place at this particular time is revealed.
Edward Einhorn gives us an adaptation that is taken practically verbatim from the book. The narrator, John, speaks all the prose and the dialogue is lifted right out. We don't hear the whole novel but at almost two-and-a-half hours long it's pretty darn close to it. Einhorn extrapolates Vonnegut's themes of our mindless devotion to religions such as science and God's will and whittles them down into a very coherent package.
The novel is sprinkled with made-up words, proverbs, and "calypsos" (short songs) that are examples of the wisdom of Bokonon and his faux-spiritual interpretation of modern life. These calypsos are the source for musical director Henry Akona's lyrics but the music is all Akona and I really enjoyed it. It is played live by the actors on stage which makes for an impressive experience watching these folks step into a character and then pick up a guitar, trumpet, or xylophone and play. Many of the words are lost beneath the horns and other instruments but that's an easy fix. If you generally stay away from musicals in which a character inexplicably breaks into song, this is not that kind of musical! The songs are choral interludes and none lasts longer than a few minutes so for me this makes them very entertaining because they end before they become exasperating. Tom Berger does a nice job with the choreography of a large cast on a relatively small stage though there are some moments of clutter.
One of the more creative aspects of the show is how it sets up the various locations. There is a tall rack of shelves sitting upstage on which there are scale models of the locales. A camera on a stick is moved around the models while the picture is projected on a sizable (though it could stand to be larger for better viewing) screen behind the action. These models, designed by Tanya Khordoc and Barry Weil, are very detailed and quite beautiful. Technically the show looks great. The set (Amy Davis) is open and practical for a large cast. The costumes (Carla Gant) are perfect for quick changes and the lighting (Jeff Nash) sets the mood just right.
The ensemble of 20+ actors and musicians are cast very well. The acting is sort of a mixed bag but there are several performances that stand out. Timothy McCown Reynolds plays John with a very interesting subtlety in just about everything he does. Michael Bertolini is perfect as the "Ugly American," as is Sandy York in the role of his presumptuous wife Hazel. John Blaylock and Jenny McClintock play the Mintons just exactly how I heard them in my head when reading the novel. Horace Rogers's voice is great for Bokonon and Michelle Rabbani does very well at rejecting her role as the island's erotic icon. But it is Katherine Boynton who proves that there are no small roles in her hilarious portrayal of Francine.
I was very happily surprised by this show. It is far truer to the book than I expected. I think that Mr. Vonnegut would have been pleased with this adaptation. Vonnegut fans will be pleased as well. Definitely check this one out.