Cat’s Paw


Cat's Paw, presented by Theatre Pro Rata at the Gremlin Theatre

by SOPHIE KERMAN and ANNA ROSENSWEIG

Theatre Pro Rata made an interesting choice by producing Cat’s Paw, a play about domestic eco-terrorism, in the midst of our nation-wide remembrances on the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001. The play, updated in 2010 by playwright William Mastrosimone from the 1985 original, turns out to be quite self-conscious about its relationship to 9/11, as references to this day and its aftermath appear alongside other changes incorporated into the revised script. Unfortunately, this revision muddles the play’s relationship to history and distracts from its potential to examine important issues surrounding domestic terrorism and media sensationalism.

While the program note prepares us to ask “how far we would go for what we believe in,” the play itself (and the post-show talk back session which is offered after Sunday matinees) deals much more closely with the role of the media and with environmental activism. Flaws in the play itself, however, prevent us from transposing these questions back out into our own world. The characters are physically and psychologically sealed off in a warehouse, and while this atmosphere creates moments of intense and arresting drama, it does so at a remove from the world outside. Although the play successfully garners our sympathy for the characters’ campaign to end the problem of global environmental devastation, it does little to suggest more moral or humane alternatives to the violent solutions the characters propose.

By presenting our moral options as so stark, the play takes an all-or-nothing approach that pushes the bounds of believability in a post-9/11 world. Compared to their 1985 predecessors, today’s audiences are far less likely to embrace the revolutionary potential of a car bomb – particularly when the play is staged on September 11 itself. Although Mastrosimone took great pains to update the script, the viewing experience is still a throwback to a time when domestic terrorism could be associated with an idealistic left-wing radical sensibility. If we imagine ourselves outside of our own history, as the claustrophobic world of Cat’s Paw invites us to do, the play presents one set of moral questions. When we remember the past decade, different questions emerge, some more benign than others: why is the hot-button issue still water quality and not global warming? Why isn’t Victor, the lead “eco-warrior,” more aware of possible comparisons between Earth Now and al Qaeda? And why doesn’t Jessica Lyons, the intrepid television reporter, mention the ongoing international war, including famous hostages such as Daniel Pearl?

The problems we have with the script and its context, however, do not extend to the cast and crew’s execution. Many of the production elements display an acute attention to detail and a full commitment to the work’s difficult subject matter. Of particular note are Julia Carlis and Abee Warmboe’s set, which eerily resembles the hideout of a terrorist mastermind. Props designer Sarah Salisbury helps to create this vivid impression with an organized chaos of gas masks, maps, weapons, and all the detritus that one might expect to find in a terrorist storehouse.

The acting is also reliably good, with the four-person cast valiantly pouring all their efforts into animating a very talky and ideologically-charged script. Nathan Tylutki gives a particularly riveting performance as EPA official (and hostage) David Darling, whose mental deterioration after five weeks in near-solitary confinement is startling to watch and never overplayed. Small – but smart – directorial choices demonstrate Carin Bratlie’s skill in staging: actors move fluidly around the entire stage, lending dynamism to intellectual debate, and the atmospheric element of the pre-show radio broadcast readies the audience for an immersive experience. Whether the issues feel current or not, Theater Pro Rata presents a well-staged and thought-provoking production that manages to outshine its script.

Cat’s Paw, presented by Theatre Pro Rata
Written by William Mastrosimone
Directed by Carin Bratlie
Performing Sept 10-25, 2011, at The Gremlin Theatre,
2400 University Ave, St. Paul, MN 55114
Information: (612) 874-9321 or info@theatreprorata.org

by SOPHIE KERMAN

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