Coincidentally, my last two visits to Rogers Park shared the apocalyptic theme. I saw “Oppenheimer” in August. new 400 during the historic cinema’s penultimate weekend operation. Last Sunday, I returned to the North Side neighborhood for Lifeline Theatre’s “Cat’s Cradle,” an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s satirical 1963 novel about the fictional co-creator of the atomic bomb who later destroys the world with an invention called the ice nine. Step aside, brooding Cillian Murphy; It’s time for an eccentric physicist in mushroom cloud pajama pants to take center stage.
Directed by Lifeline troupe member Heather Currie, this cast captures the play’s dark humor, with often hilarious results. But as a Vonnegut newbie, I had a hard time connecting with his strange style of storytelling. Of course, some of the play’s themes are relevant today—particularly the questions it raises about ethics and science—but its criticisms of American exceptionalism and blind patriotism don’t offer many new ideas for modern audiences. I think this adaptation by troupe member John Hildreth might have turned out differently in 2002, when Lifeline premiered about six months after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, but the Cold War-era satire appears to have worn off by now.
Plot-wise, there’s a lot going on in “Cat’s Cradle.” The narrator (Tony Bozzuto), who introduces himself as Jonah but is often referred to as a “freelance writer”, is working on a book about the end of the world. He specifically wants to write about the activities of prominent Americans on the day the United States detonated the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. This brings him into contact with family members and colleagues of the late physicist Felix Hoenikker, who appear in flashbacks in Patrick Blashill’s scene-stealing performance.
Later, another writing assignment brings the narrator to San Lorenzo, a fictional Caribbean island with an aging dictator and a strange religion founded by a charismatic leader, Bokonon (Johnard Washington). Here the narrator once again crosses paths with Hoenikker’s quirky adult children: Franklin (Vic Kuligoski), Angela (Jocelyn Maher), and Newt (Shea Lee). Through a strange series of events, the narrator becomes the new president of San Lorenzo and must overcome the existential threat posed by the ice nine, Hoenikker’s invention that instantly turns liquid water into ice.
These broad strokes don’t include some of the funniest and sharpest satirical characters, like Mr. and Mrs. Crosby (Blashill and Mandy Walsh), an extravagant Midwestern couple who befriend the narrator on the plane to San Lorenzo. Mrs. Crosby, always pleased to meet a fellow Hoosier, insists that the astonished narrator call her “mother.” Wearing colorful, matching outfits (costumes by Aly Amidei) and cheerfully sipping cocktails as they discuss the brutal conditions in which the islanders live, the Crosbys are the very picture of callous American tourists.
Also on the plane is Mr. Minton (Maher), who has recently been fired from the State Department for insufficient attention to American exceptionalism and is heading into gentle exile as the new US ambassador to San Lorenzo. He and Miss Minton (Shelby Lynn Bias), a professional book indexer, are leafing through a guidebook to the island nation. Ms. Minton, with her niche expertise and academic snobbery, psychoanalyzes the author of the book through the index that she herself dared to write – a great mistake in her field.
Scenes involving the fictional Bokononism religion are entertaining, if a bit cringeworthy, in the way they depict the native islanders’ devotion to a cult-like prophet. (To be fair, the white American narrator also converts when he arrives on the island.) In their irreverence for a seemingly distant creator, the Bokononists have similar energy to the Ugandan characters who sing “Hasa Diga Eebowai” in “The Book of Mormon.” Decked out in absurd headdresses like lampshades and traffic cones, parishioners follow Bokonon, singing cheerful calypso with incongruous sarcastic lyrics. At one point, the audience is encouraged to sing “Busy, busy, busy,” a simple tune that Bokononists sing when reflecting on the complexities and unpredictability of life.
While this offbeat world-building is fun, I’m torn as to why “Cat’s Cradle” would be revived in 2023. Of course, there are prescient warnings about the dangers of scientific progress; One of the characters says that everything scientists work on will one day be used as a weapon. And Ambassador Minton’s speech criticizing the use of military martyrs as support for chauvinist patriotism still rings true, even though it’s a point that’s been made for decades. But while some of the individual themes are thought-provoking and the performances are entertaining, the entire package is no more than the sum of its parts.
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Emily McClanathan is a freelance critic.
Review: “Cat’s Cradle” (2.5 stars)
When: Until October 22
Where: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave.
Working time: 2 hours 15 minutes
Tickets: $45 or from 773-761-4477. lifelinetheatre.com
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