Kurt Vonnegut himself couldn’t imagine a better adaptation of Cat’s Cradle than Lifeline’s new show

Photo by Jackie Jasperson

Kurt Vonnegut’s novels, despite being full of interesting characters and memorable settings, are notoriously difficult to adapt for the stage. So it goes. (Any fan of Vonnegut will know what I just did there.) But when the adapter gets it right and the director and designers are able to make it all work, the result can be remarkable, as it is in Lifeline Theatre’s new production of one of the Bard of Indianapolis’s—am I the only one who thinks of him this way? I am? Fine then!—greatest satirical works, Cat’s Cradle. Here, adapter John Hildreth’s script captures most of the fun of Vonnegut’s novel, and director Heather Currie and her wonderful cast do the rest.

Vonnegut’s wit and wisdom drench every page of his books, most of which make readers laugh out loud while satirizing the darkness of which humanity is capable…and celebrating the goodness that the author loved so much. 1963’s Cat’s Cradle is an examination of undoubtedly our species’ most horrendous contribution to the world, the atomic bomb. Like most of his books, though, this end-of-the-world novel does not take on the main topic directly; rather, it shows that we are capable of much worse inventions.

In the case of Cat’s Cradle, the “much worse” invention is a thing called ice-nine. Like so many other things, ice-nine is invented to help the military who, in this case, asked the man who invented the bomb—here called Felix Hoenniker, a combination of J. Robert Oppenheimer and a chemist named Irving Langmuir who worked with seeding ice—to help them to freeze muddy soil faster to help their war machines get through more easily. Though he never told the US government about it, Hoenniker actually succeeded. Ice-nine would instantly freeze anything containing water if it came into contact with it—and I’ll pause here to remind the reader that the human body is more than 50% water, making ice-nine easily the most dangerous weapon ever (fictionally) created, at least until the Death Star.

Hoenniker (played with a lot of joy and exuberance by Patrick Blashill), a genius with the playfulness of a child, did not realize the impact of his invention, or he never would have given each of his three children a tiny crystal of the stuff (locked in a sealed container, but still dangerous). Those children, now grown and more than a little bit neurotic, are three of the most significant characters in the novel and the play, which is told from the point of view of a writer named Jonah (Tony Bozzuto) most of which takes place on the fictional Caribbean island of San Lorenzo. Jonah is researching a book about the elusive father of the atomic bomb, but he gets sidetracked by the beauty of San Lorenzo’s spokeswoman, Mona Monzano (Shelby Lynn Bias), and ends up involved in island politics.

San Lorenzo itself is a microcosmic embodiment of the lunacy of humanity. It is, we are told, an utterly useless island with little to recommend it. Well, there is one thing: there is absolutely no crime on the island. That is because the government, run by Mona’s father “Papa” Monzano (Johnard Washington), has decreed that any crime at all is punishable by “the hook,” a form of impalement no one wants to risk. And one of the crimes that the government hates the most is being a member of the Bokononist religious faith.

Bokonon (also played by Washington) is the outlaw sect leader whose preaching fills the cracks and crevices of this island. Adapter Hildreth does well to keep in many of Bokonon’s “calypsos”—little easily-memorized ditties that his followers can sing to remind them of how to live…or the meaninglessness of it all—and director Currie stages them with tremendous joy. (The fact that none of these calypsos could possibly be taken seriously—a lot of the time, they are simply nonsense—is part of the fun.) Bokononism preaches that all of us belong to a karass, a group of people whose lives keep intertwining with our own. (There are also false karasses called granfalloons, which are people who don’t have any real connection but group together anyway. The play’s best example? Hoosiers.)

Currie has a lot of fun with the most sacred Bokononist ritual, boko-maru. While it sounds like something from Star Trek, it is actually a very sensual, intimate act of physical contact between the naked soles of the feet of two people. (Get it? Their soles souls are connected?) Yes, a lot of Vonnegut is very silly, but it is silliness with a purpose. And as silly as this ritual is, it is perfect for Bokononism, which teaches that we should take comfort from harmless lies we tell ourselves, as everything is pretty much inevitable anyway.

The amazing thing is that Hildreth’s adaptation, Currie’s staging, and Lindsay Mummert’s clever scenic design (aided ably by Aly Amidei’s costumes, Saskia Bakker’s props, Sarah Riffle’s lighting, and Stefanie Senior’s sound design) manage to make all of this perfectly understandable in a two-hour-long play. The cast clearly has a great time with both the silliness and the seriousness of the plot. (It may often be ridiculous, but the world does end during it.) So it goes.

The play is rife with outstanding individual performers including, in addition to those actors already named, Shea Lee, Jocelyn Maher, Mandy Walsh, Vic Kuligoski, and Anthony Kayer. Lee and Kayer especially are memorable. I usually find Lifeline casts excellent, but this is one of the finest I’ve seen. I think I will always picture Lee’s plaintive “Where is the cat? Where is the cradle?” in the future when I read the novel. (The string game “cat’s cradle” is what Felix Hoenniker was doing when the bomb dropped, a meaningless activity itself based on a lie: there is nothing there but string.)

You can always count on Lifeline to produce insightful plays, many of which are original adaptations of literature. Cat’s Cradle is among its best. Whether or not you are a fan of Vonnegut, this is a funny, thought-provoking play you should definitely find the time to see.

Cat’s Cradle is playing at Lifeline Theatre until October 22. Tickets are available here. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.

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