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Catch-22 at Subversive doesn’t make the leap from page to stage

THE BASICS:  CATCH 22, a comedy by Joseph Heller presented by Subversive Theatre, directed by Kurt Schneiderman runs through September 28, Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. at The Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Avenue, on the third floor (462-5549). www.subversivetheatre.org Runtime: a little over 2-1/2 hours with one intermission.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: This is novelist Joseph Heller’s own stage adaptation of his novel, CATCH-22, set in an air base off Italy during World War II, where the protagonist, “anti-hero” Captain John Yossarian, a U.S. Air Forces B-25 bombardier, is weary of flying missions and wants to be sent home. But every time he fulfills his quota of missions, the number is increased. Yossarian tries to get a psychiatric discharge but is told that if he’s sane enough to not want to fly, then he’s not crazy. That’s Catch-22. The play is populated with most of the bizarre characters from the novel, the only “sympathetic” ones being Yossarian and The Chaplain.

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: American novelist Joseph Heller himself flew 60 bombing missions from May to October 1944, and while he returned home with body intact, it took almost ten years to start writing about his experiences, and even then his novel CATCH-22 wasn’t published until 1961. As American involvement in the Vietnam War escalated in the 1960s, the novel became a cult favorite with college students, including me, as it deals with the absurdity of war.

In 1971 the author wrote his own stage adaptation, which never really gained much success.

Here are two problems with this play: in the novel, characters and situations are presented out of time order and are fragmented, but ultimately, given the 500 or so pages, it all comes together. The play, even though a hefty 105 pages, doesn’t quite allow for the luxury of character development and certainly not enough time to develop scenes.

Still, two and a half hours is a decent amount of time for a play, but the direction by Kurt Schneiderman seemed to call for almost all of the actors to begin their scenes at peak volume with a lot of shouting, and stomping, and throwing of objects. Perhaps this was intended to portray the chaos of war, but with no dramatic arc, the two and a half hours seemed to go on and on.

That’s not to dismiss fight choreographer Jessica Stuber who staged some pretty convincing scenes, but instead of the fights punctuating the action, the whole show was so full of exclamation points that a few more here or there didn’t matter. Also, the set by Chris Wilson, reminiscent of a bombed-out European city was ideal for this play.

The set by Chris Wilson, reminiscent of a bombed-out European city was ideal for this play.

I did enjoy some of the individual performances. Connor Maxwell plays Yossarian believably and his delivery was clear and sure. And it was good to see some of the “old timers” back on stage, including Jack Agugliaro as the Chaplain and J. Tim Raymond in a variety of roles where his on-stage chain smoking was so realistic you weren’t sure if he was going to make it through the show. Really well done. And cachets to the only two women on stage, including Mikyla Fisher for bravely taking on the role of Nurse Duckett, which she performed splendidly. Kudos as well to Jessie Miller for her stage fights and her superb Italian accent (perhaps perfected in Second Generation Theatre’s summer production of NINE?) as Luciana and Nately’s Whore.

Subversive Theatre, now in their 17th season, has found success with, as they say, “a non-stop barrage of provocative, agitational, socially -relevant plays” and on their website they quote Bertolt Brecht’s “Art is NOT a Mirror to Reflect Reality But a Hammer to Shape It!” In this play, CATCH-22, it seems as if they let the idea of a non-stop barrage of hammer blows dictate the overall artistic concept.

UP NEXT: Qui Nguyen’s SHE KILLS MONSTERS described by play publisher Samuel French as follows: “A comedic romp into the world of fantasy role-playing games, SHE KILLS MONSTERS tells the story of Agnes Evans… following the death of her teenage sister, Tilly, when Agnes finds Tilly’s Dungeons & Dragons notebook she stumbles into a journey of discovery and action-packed adventure in the imaginary world that was Tilly’s refuge.” And what a cast, including Emily Yancey and Jamie Nablo, both so daring  when last seen in the bizarre GIRLS WHO WALKED ON GLASS and Rick Lattimer who brought his own brand of wonderful weirdness to FARENHEIT 451 (which also starred Jamie Nablo) as well as to the character Shere Khan in THE JUNGLE BOOK.

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For 20 years, as program host on Classical 94.5 WNED and continuing on-stage with the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?"

As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take." And, on “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM and Saturday afternoons at 5:55 p.m. on Classical 94.5 WNED) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?"

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he has been an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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