August 26, 2010 at 6:12 pm EDT | by Patrick Folliard
A gutsy take on a Vonnegut cult classic

It takes guts to fiddle with a cult classic. In adapting and staging Kurt Vonnegut’s much-loved novel “Cat’s Cradle,” Longacre Lea Productions’ artistic director Kathleen Akerley proves not only that she’s long on confidence, but also that she grasps the book’s intelligent and devilishly satirical spirit.

When Vonnegut penned the 1963 work, nuclear proliferation was very much on America’s mind. (Sadly, today not a lot has changed.) In “Cat’s Cradle,” he spoofs the West’s absolute devotion to modern science: Ironically, rather than improving our lives, these advancements move us closer to the end of the world. Employing science fiction and a healthy dose of dark humor, the author thrashes out the horrors of the modern world. Akerley offers a pretty straight forward rendition of Vonnegut’s vision.

The story begins in fictional Ilium, New York, where writer Jonah is researching his new book, “The Day the World Ended,” an account of what (the also fictional) scientist Felix Hoenikker, one of the inventors of the atomic bomb, was doing at the exact moment that the weapon was dropped on Hiroshima. While interviewing a selection of colorful, local contacts, Jonah (an even-keeled everyman played by the excellent Michael Glenn) becomes increasingly immersed in Hoenikker’s oddish life as well as the lives of the late scientist’s offbeat, adult children.

Continued research puts Jonah on a plane to San Lorenzo, a tin pot republic located somewhere in the Caribbean. While in the air, he meets two of Hoenikker’s three children, Angela and Newton, a little person. Once on the ground, he meets the third and oldest, wackiest sibling Franklin (Joe Brack), who serves as San Lorenzo’s Minister of Science and Progress. To Jonah’s dismay, he learns that each of the Hoenikker offspring possess a portion of their father’s last invention — Ice Nine — a substance that is (rather unwittingly) more lethal than the A-bomb. Consequently, an end-of-the-world scenario soon ensues.

With the exception of Glenn, who plays Jonah, other members of the versatile 10-person take on at least two characters — a veritable kaleidoscope primarily composed of distinctly American types. Danny Gavigan and Suzanne Richard respectively play — to great effect — a low key Ilium bartender and a wisecracking hooker. In an inspired stroke of cross-gender casting, the pair returns as the genteel Angela Hoenikker and her unassuming brother Newton. Heather Haney is terrific as Hazel, the eternally optimistic Hoosier.

Gay actor Christopher Henley wonderfully portrays both haughty scientist Asa Breed, and later Horlick Minton, the cynical American ambassador to San Lorenzo. Marcia Kirtland is completely convincing as the ambassador’s perceptive wife, Claire. Henley’s real life partner, Jay Hardee, very admirably pulls double duty as a perky, wig-wearing flight attendant and an American expat artist in San Lorenzo.

Clocking in at nearly three hours with two intermissions, this “Cat’s Cradle” is decidedly long, but thankfully not slow-moving — for the most part it keeps a swift pace. At times (particularly with some of the San Lorenzo scenes), the narrative becomes a little ungainly and a tad too heavy on exposition, but these shortcomings are redeemed by Akerley’s splendidly inventive staging and the show’s particularly able actors.

Assisted by John Burkland’s evocative lighting as well as Neil McFadden’s impressive and meticulously executed sound design, the often smoke-drenched multi-leveled, monochromatic gray set (compliments of Tom Donahue) magically morphs into far flung locales including an Ilium bar, Hoenikker’s laboratory, a hobby shop, inside of a commercial plane, and the barren face of an iced-over earth. Not nearly as somber as the set, Gail Stewart Beach’s costumes are spot on early 1960s.

Longacre Lea’s “Cat’s Cradle” is ambitious, thought-provoking, and timely. And what’s more, it’s exceedingly entertaining.

Cat’s Cradle
Through Sept. 6
Longacre Lea Productions
Catholic University’s Callan Theatre
3801 Harewood Rd., N.E.

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