Kurt Vonnegut keeps giving legiters trouble. Last month, Godlight Theater creatives took a respectable stab at his novel “Slaughterhouse-Five,” but they lost the thread by replacing his plot structure with their own metatheatrical chicanery. if that production had too little Vonnegut, however, the adaptation of “Cat’s Cradle” from Untitled Theater Company #61 has far too much. It sacrifices a compelling point of view by being too respectful of its source.
That’s a shame, because adaptor-director Edward Einhorn has an exciting concept: The entire show is a passion play performed by Bokononists, meaning people who live on the fictitious island of San Lorenzo and practice the fictitious religion of Bokonon. (Vonnegut created both.)
We’re quickly shown that thesps are worshippers at a religious service, and they only become other characters when they slip costume pieces over their linen pants and white shirts. As part of the service, a man with a video camera (Barry Weil) stands by a rack of small set models. When the parable moves to a new location — like an island castle or an American cemetery — he films the corresponding model, and the image is projected on an upstage screen.
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Zesty calypso songs accompany these transitions, and their lyrics, taken from the prayers Vonnegut wrote for his novel, explain the religion’s major philosophies. Thus, Einhorn creates a sense of dramatic urgency by insisting we’re in a present-moment church ritual.
And even devotees of the book — which relates how a substance called ice nine destroys the planet — may be seduced. If we’re learning how American scientists and San Lorenzan leaders leveled the Earth, does that mean this service takes place after the apocalypse? Did humans re-emerge, only to follow the teachings of Bokononism? Einhorn shrewdly avoids answering these questions.
That intrigue makes it tempting to listen to John (Timothy McCown Reynolds), who guides the ritual by relating how he stumbled upon San Lorenzo, accidentally became its leader and wrote down everything about the disaster. At first, it seems he’s a narrator who exists outside the passion play, ready to explain what’s going on. But really, John is just a Bokononist who put on his costume before we arrived.
That’s a delicious mind game, because it makes us trust John as our onstage stand-in and then reveals that he was an islander all along. It’s like the play is encouraging us to convert to a fake religion — if John can do it, so can we — which perfectly echoes Vonnegut’s satire.
And Reynolds’ low-key perf is excellent bait. His nonchalance says he’s unconcerned if we listen. He’s just telling the truth, with or without our approval, and that makes him fascinating.
The rest of the cast offsets Reynolds in early scenes, bringing wide-eyed eagerness to their roles-within-roles. Tacky costume pieces like giant bouffant wigs and hideous sport coats enhance the church basement wholesomeness.
After about 40 minutes, though, the play becomes much more conventional. Actors speak long passages of Vonnegut’s expository dialogue while basically standing still, meaning we hear about actions more frequently than we see them performed. It’s true that the plot grows dense with minor characters and interconnected events, but by reciting the details as liturgy, the production loses its theatricality.
“Cat’s Cradle” finally becomes a chore. With less devotion to Vonnegut’s language and details, it could succeed in translating his message into a new medium.