Now you have two reasons to read CAT’S CRADLE.
The first has been in place since 1963, when Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s fourth-published full-length work debuted. It’s was a wild ‘n’ crazy terrific read then, and is now.
The second reason came into being on September 1, 2023, when Lifeline Theatre in Chicago began performances of John Hildreth’s dramatization.
Alas, if you don’t read or reread Vonnegut’s novel before heading to North Glenwood Avenue, you may be lost for much of the show. Too many times you’ll be wondering, “What’s the point?”
But considering the dazzling staging and performances that Lifeline has delivered, you might have fun just going with the proverbial flow.
The real problem is that Hildreth has retained scenes that needn’t have been included. Do we really need to see Jonah – our narrator if not our hero – meet a prostitute at a bar and learn that she was on the Class Colors Committee in high school?
Some scenes are actually distractions, such as one in which Jonah and a secretary are passengers in an elevator with a terribly garrulous operator. He says nothing that helps the story.
Hold on, you say: Vonnegut was responsible for those, wasn’t he? Yes indeed, but readers of novels can take their time to savor words and events. Playwriting is all about forwarding the action and getting it all done in a couple of hours. The big question dramatists must answer at every turn is “Why is this the scene we must see now?”
Would that Hildreth had asked himself that at regular intervals.
Perhaps he simply loved the novel’s many novel episodes to the point where he couldn’t bear to part with them. Granted, the book is astonishingly episodic; Vonnegut structured it in – yes – 127 super-short chapters. But that should have made pruning that much easier. What Hildreth has essentially created is an elaborate audiobook with pictures.
“Call me Jonah” is still the first line to remind us of another great American novel. When we meet this freelance writer, the poor guy is a nervous wreck, as any of us would be if the world had ended around us.
Jonah explains how it happened. An atomic bomb wasn’t responsible, but the (fictional) father of it – one Felix Hoenniker, the ultimate eccentric scientist – will inadvertently destroy earth from another of his innovative brainstorms. It doesn’t happen until after his death, when his daughter Angela and sons Franklin and Newton discover another of his discoveries.
The trouble happens on the mythical Caribbean island of San Lorenzo, where Franklin, a lifelong slacker and dreamer, has somehow managed to become the country’s prime minister. Now that he’s about to marry Mona, the gloriously beautiful daughter of President “Papa” Monzano, Angela and Newton will come to witness the ceremony.
So will Jonah, much to his dismay. We’ve all heard of people falling in love at first sight, but Jonah does that fallacy one worse: Mona bewitches him through the picture that he sees of her in a newspaper. Imagine how Jonah will feel after he arrives in San Lorenzo to write a story and sees Mona in living color.
Jonah eventually encounters someone even more memorable: Bokonon, the self-proclaimed god who doesn’t dispense psalms but calypsos. The arbitrariness of religion is a big theme of CAT’S CRADLE; if some can claim that [fill-in-the-blank] is God, Vonnegut reasoned that he could, too. Human beings throughout history have told others to worship everything from the sun to L. Ron Hubbard, so any of us has an equal right to do the same.
Hence, the Bokononian premise is that religion is a crock of you-know-what; most San Lorenzans have come to agree. That infuriates Papa, for what better way is there to control people than by religion?
No one in the country, not even its president, can eradicate a faith that fully advocates free love. Bokonon’s even created a new way to copulate.
Try it; you might like it. Here’s betting, though, that you won’t give up what you usually do in favor of it. Nevertheless, you won’t be put to death for doing it, unlike every San Lorenzan who practices it.
Bokonon also coins plenty of colorful words that someone should have thought of long before Vonnegut took up the task. People who have many commonalities are members of the same karass; two people who have so much in common that it’s a phenomenon are members of a duprass.
His best word, though, is granfalloon, which describes those who have something in common that’s utterly meaningless but that doesn’t stop them from giving great importance to it.
Here it applies to Hazel Crosby, who takes great pride in being a Hoosier (a word as strange as granfalloon, when you come to think of it). As a result, she’ll like, love and bond for life with anyone who was born in Indiana or even moved there.
Funny; for all of Hildreth’s appropriations, he missed including one of the best couplets that Vonnegut gave to Bokonon: “If you wish to study a granfalloon, just remove the skin of a toy balloon.”
Newton is much more often called Newt, which can be interpreted as a comment on his four feet of height. Vonnegut called him “a midget” in a time when consciousness raising had not yet entered our consciousness; nevertheless, Hildreth retains it.
See? There’s plenty here without adding extraneous divertissements. And yet, despite Hildreth’s including so many scenes that won’t add up and will only confuse CRADLE newbies, there’s still fun to be had at Lifeline. One major reason is the truly extraordinary production that Heather Currie has awarded the script.
Currie did a magnificent job of directing on a unit set where she arranged to have nine actors make dozens upon dozens of exits and entrances with timing that would put a Patek Philippe to shame. It’s reminiscent of freewheeling style that Rachel Chavkin brought to NATASHA, PIERRE & THE GREAT COMET OF 1812. And what could be a greater compliment than that?
Currie deserves extra credit for casting Johnard Washing not only as Bokonon, but also as Papa. To see him expertly alternate the two disparate characters is a great part of the fun.
Hildreth and/or Currie changed the nature of Mona. Vonnegut made her a matter-of-fact, seen-it-all aloof ice queen. Here her nature has been changed to an extroverted siren. No harm done; the approach works just as well, especially because Shelby Lynn Bias knows just how to play it.
Currie has embraced another facet of non-traditional casting: Shea Lee, a most gifted Asian actress, plays him, although she’s four-foot eight and not officially part of the little people community. What’s more important is that Lee, Currie and Hildreth have followed Vonnegut’s careful lead in ensuring that the character doesn’t remotely become a caricature.
Angela’s one skill is her ability with a clarinet, and while Jocelyn Maher let the sound system play for her, she received a nice laugh after she finished her song; she punctuated it with a satisfied look that replicated one that a person exhibits after a healthy orgasm.
Vic Kuligoski captures Franklin’s nervousness as someone who knows he’s a charlatan but hopes that no one else is noticing. Mandy Walsh, as the aforementioned Hazel and Anthony Kayer as her buffoonish husband do beautifully as ugly Americans.
And then there’s Jonah, to whom Tony Bozzuto gives quintessential charm. He especially does grandly by a speech in which Hildreth does some genuine writing. Now we see what’s on his mind and how CAT’S CRADLE inspired him.
(He also chooses to add one more body to the carnage that Vonnegut didn’t.)
And if the achievements by the extraordinary actors aren’t impressive enough, there was understudy Orion Lay-Sleeper, who had all of two hours rehearsal before going on for two performances as the often-on-stage Felix and other roles, too. To say that Lay-Sleeper was letter-perfect would be a grave understatement or even a miscarriage of justice; he was syllable-perfect. Moreover, he was never a step late for his many, many entrances and exits and never got in the way of the performers who’d been doing it since Day One.
Whether the end of the world will happen in two billion years or two weeks, no one can deny that we’re 60 years closer to earth’s end since CAT’S CRADLE was first published in 1963. What it has to say about the futility of war, politics, xenophobia, and (first and foremost) religion is still startlingly (and lamentably) relevant today.
Windy City residents and its visitors have this week and next to see it. If they can’t find the time beforehand to read CAT’S CRADLE, they should start, anyway. Once they begin it, they won’t want to do anything else but continue to the last page and then rush to Lifeline Theatre.