'Catch-22' is Difficult for
Los Altos Stage to Define
Although originally adapted for the stage in 1971 by the author himself, it took more than 46 years for Joseph Heller's Catch-22 to finally see the lights of Broadway. Now, a decade later, this 20th century classic is seeing the stage again, this time in a light-hearted, dreamy reimagining presented by the Los Altos Stage Company.
The play opens with Yossarian, a WWII Army Air Corps pilot stuck on a military base off the coast of Italy, grappling with the concept of a 'Catch-22'—a fictional army rule, which keeps him and his fellow airmen flying suicidal bombing missions. The circular logic of the Catch-22 dictates that only soldiers proven insane may be sent home; however, the rule also states that claiming to be insane is proof of one's sanity; furthermore, insane individuals are valuable, as one would have to be nuts to voluntarily join in a low-altitude bombing run.
From there the plot jumps back and forth in time, as Yossarian and his fellow airmen drop bombs over Europe and do battle with cruelly indifferent Army bureaucrats.
All of the set's pieces remain on stage at all times—including the nose of a B-24 Liberator bomber, which is repositioned and refigured depending on the scene. This imaginative design gives a seamless movement to the action, so that the play is in continuous transition. The dynamic lighting helps create unique ambiance.
The Chaplain, played by John Stephen King, is funny and nuanced, as the only straight man in a entire cast of wackos. He also provides some sense of context and continuity throughout the play via his brief narrations. Other notable performances include Jordan Kersten as the sultry Whitcomb and Gary Landis as Colonel Cathcart.
The standout performance belongs to Robert Sean Campbell, as the neurotic but grandiose Milo Minderbinder, whose malicious, entrepreneurial scheming is rendered with a captivating spirit.
Unfortunately, though our anti-hero Yossarian (played by Bryan Moriarty) is in nearly every scene, even bit characters in the play are more memorable. Instead of absurdly wandering through military limbo, forced to come to conclusions about the nature of life and status quo, the Yossarian of Los Altos' adaptation simply wanders.
Perhaps the time between the original adaptation by Heller in 1971 and its eventual stage premiere in 2007, offers a clue. The consolidation of a novel's worth of characters into nine people playing at least three roles each does no service to clarity in an already famously non-linear story. Moreover, the constant churning, flashback-heavy structure of the plot tests the abilities of the actors to change both their costumes and personae in a split second. This leads to some confusion in following along—even for the cast, who at times were playing one character as another.
Conveying an atmosphere of sanity masked as insanity (or vise-versa) is tricky and Los Altos Stage Company succeeds in infusing a fresh, giddy energy into the production. But by re-dressing Catch-22 in a more zany light, the existential horrors that give weight to the dark comedy in the novel, are reduced on-stage to a panoply of sight-gags, clumsy organization and out-of-context pontification.
Because they are so monochromatic, the scenes in this production flow easily into each other, never exhibiting the jagged discontinuities of the story. Thus, without a previous knowledge of the novel, one could easily come away without any solid understanding of Catch-22, other than its dictionary definition. No scene or interaction lasts long enough to give the story cohesion or shock—and when plot developments are explained, the play's inherently chaotic nature smothers them, before any kind of contextual foundation can be established.
Without reinforcing the inherent anxiety of the characters in the novel—men facing the prospect of death every day (the 8th Air Force had a higher mortality rate than the Marines in the Pacific)—the significance of the characters' absurdity is reduced to superficial comedy. For this, the blame probably rests on Heller himself, who was a different man by the time he came to adapt this play from his most famous work. Ultimately Catch-22 flounders under its own dizzying, unfocused weight.
Thru May 1, 3pm & 8pm, $18-$32
Bus Barn Theater, Los Altos