Written by: Joseph Heller
At: American Theater Company,
1909 W. Byron; Tickets: $20-$25
Runs through: May 26
by Rick Reed
The phrase has become part of our lexicon. But it was Joseph Heller who coined it, when he entitled his absurdist satire of war Catch-22, and lent meaning to a paradox where alternatives cancel each other out, making escape a virtually impossible dilemma. The book, written some 40 years ago, is a classic because its message has never gone out of style, and probably never will, as long as there's a little human foible around called war. Heller put his finger on the insane, dehumanizing pulse of mankind's lust for battle and came away with a diagnosis that continues to ring true: war is one of the human race's most barbaric, nonsensical rites, yet making it vanish is a problem for which we've yet to find a solution.
American Theater Company has made an admirable pass at distilling Heller's message into a little over two hours. This is no small feat when one considers the large stage upon which the novel is writ, its dozens of characters, and the sheer scope of its settings. Director John Mohrlein brings Heller's satiric, comic vision to loud, disruptive, and comic life with a very sure hand, adeptly moving myriad scenes along with clockwork precision and eliciting stylized performances from his actors that employ an indefatigable amount of energy and daring. With a set by Mary Griswold, lighting by Geoffrey Bushor, on-target cartoonish sound by Lindsay Jones, and costumes by Erin Tuefel, this Catch-22 has captured the absurdity of Heller's masterpiece in all its lunatic glory. Andrew Micheli as our everyman soldier, Yossarian, is the only actor in the piece who is outfitted in the skin of just one character. His Yossarian is on target, as he forces us to empathize with his conundrum: if he admits he's crazy to escape the insanity of war, then he's not crazy at all. The other five actors bring to life a whole host of characters, changing costumes, voices and faces at breakneck speed. Credit them for not stumbling in a land mine of characterizations that might overwhelm less polished performers.
In spite of all this, I did not find Catch-22 an enjoyable evening of theater. Admirable, oh yes, but its cartoonish world, its one-pitch ( loud ) delivery, and its forced depravity became old very quickly and just as quickly, I became bored. Very bored. I wanted out of the theater as much as Yossarian wanted out of World War II and my Catch-22 was that I had to stay because I had to write this review and tell all of you to stay away.
Read Heller's novel if you want to see a true satiric genius at his peak, doing his finest work. Some books just don't translate to the stage, or to a movie screen. Catch-22 is one of them.