I am CRAZY about this company. C-R-A-Z-Y. These actors leap off the page and celebrate big time. I have long espoused multiple casting, but Aquila Theatre takes this to a whole new level. Seven actors play 25 roles. They do it well. They do it SO well that it took me awhile to realize there were so few actors.
This play is an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s play based on his novel of the same name. Catch-22 is all about madness, not only the madness of war, but also the madness of, well, pretty much everything. In war, you can get out of going back to the front if you are insane. You do, however, have to ask, formally. And any person who can ask a question like that is not insane. In life you can get out of doing your work if you are smart. You just manipulate other people to do your work for you. They will be grateful and you get the credit. Or is that war?
The lines blur in this production, as Heller meant them to. The story is told in a jumble of flashbacks. Yossarian (John Lavelle) is in the hospital recovering from a knife wound. We zigzag, following his trail like a herd of tipsy blood hounds. It is a dizzying descent, passing through layers of Hell and cushioned with humor. Doctors are parodies of madness and superficialities. Soldiers bomb a town one day and fall in love with its hookers the next. And supplies, well, they have become the personal property of the supply officer, Milo Minderbinder (Chip Brookes), who sees them merely as a means to financial gain.
This is where the story fell down a little for me, because Minderbinder was the pivotal character as I read the book. His cavalier approach to war is so pure that it becomes seductive. War is there to help those who can make money off of those who can’t. Simple. Elegant. Persuasive. It is nearly amusing, until there are no parachutes because the silk was traded away and no morphine to sooth a guy whose guts spill out all over Yossarian. (In this production that moment gets caught up in the mechanics of the play. Actors toss cans of tomatoes over Yossarian, and the impact is underwhelming.)
So yeah, I can quibble with the director’s, focus but Catch-22 is sleek, trim, and solid. When the General keeps upping the mission quota the soldiers need to reach before they can be shipped out, and demands that everyone go to battle in full uniform to impress the enemy, you realize that we are no longer in fantasy land. This is too insane not to be true. Soldiers would rather die in hospital than be killed; bombers age because they are seconds away from death every time they report for duty; the God no one believes in is a just God. In case there is any doubt, the pre-show and intermission filler is a short film on How to Fly a B-25 with background war music like Ethel Merman warbling We’ll Be Singing Halleluiah Marching Through Berlin. Not a combination I had witnessed before.
Aquila Theatre escorts us down into the depths, pokes us till we laugh, and ends on a tiny note of hope. World War II is not so distant. Catch-22 spans the years and points us to Iraq, Afghanistan, Mumbai – if we are willing to look. This is masterful storytelling.
Catch-22 – by Joseph Heller, Adapted and Directed by Peter Meineck. Featuring Mark Alhadeff, Teddy Alvaro, David Bishins, Chip Brookes, Emily Cardea, John Lavelle, Christina Pumariega, Richard Sheridan Willis and Craig Wroe. Design by Peter Meineck. Movement by Desiree Sanchez. Sound Design by Mark Sanders. Production Manager Nate Terracio. Production Stage Manager Cat Coffey. Continues through Dec. 20 at the Lucille Lortel Theater, 121 Christopher Street, West Village, New York, (212) 279-4200.