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Telegenic Terror

Theater Review: Cat's Paw


Published November 8, 2006 at 10:59 p.m.

Suicide car bombings and kidnappings have become a daily part of our news diet. Cameras bring the chaos of Baghdad's streets into American living rooms. As Barre granite workers quietly carve headstones for fallen soldiers in the so-called "war on terror," lawmakers and automakers invoke the specter of September 11 to advance their agendas and sell SUVs.

Word wars rage around the subject of terrorism as well. Politicians and pundits pontificate - but where are the playwrights? The St. Michael's College Theatre Department has jumped into this hot-topic fray with a curiously prescient piece written in 1985: Cat's Paw by William Mastrosimone. Professor Cathy Hurst directed a bold production, with mixed results, of the flawed yet shockingly relevant play.

Elements of Mastrosimone's script are eerily prophetic, predating major milestones in the history of terror. A fertilizer-fueled car bomb blows up a federal building, as Timothy McVeigh did in the 1995 Oklahoma City attack. The terrorist demands his rambling tract's publication to stop his violent campaign, as did Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. He also hints at future plans for destroying Washington, D.C., landmarks with an airplane.

At the core of Cat's Paw is the complicated relationship between those who create violence and those who cover it. Victor is a modern terrorist - a media-savvy purveyor of mayhem. He knows as much about camera angles as he does about car bombs. Jessica is an aggressive television journalist who will do anything for a story. Victor knows her edgy oeuvre well.

Victor's cause is the water supply's purity and safety, and his ends justify any means. "By my clock, which is the ecosystem clock, it is 11:59," he inveighs. "There is no more time to write our congressman . . . The earth is dying." He and his small band of followers kidnap an EPA official, explode a car bomb at EPA headquarters, killing 27, and then offer Jessica an exclusive interview at their lair.

The encounter between Victor and Jessica becomes an extended psychological dance. They wrangle over semantics ('terrorist' versus 'urban guerilla'), questions and format. Jessica asserts her journalistic bona fides. "I don't do propaganda," she states. "I'm in the truth business." Victor massages her ego with flattery. "I always knew you were the one," he says. "In front of your camera the phonies were phonier, the true were truer."

While Jessica interviews Victor's disciple Cathy and the hostage David, the lead terrorist hovers and manipulates the questioning. Victor wants David to come clean on camera about what really happened at Crystal River, a polluted water site where, it turns out, many of their lives have intersected before. Each learns dangerous secrets about the others, and no one is a hero in the end. Victor's instincts for self-promotion and self-preservation trump his commitment to the cause. Jessica's hard shell finally cracks, revealing a badly wounded psyche, but she falters when given a chance to redeem herself and her tarnished profession.

It's a bleak, disturbing tale. Two elements of the St. Mike's production enhanced the intensity of the storytelling: the set and the use of live video.

The entire action of the play takes place in a warehouse, where the terrorists live, store their arms cache, and hold their hostage. Scenic designer Robert Wolff rendered the stark world brilliantly. Neutral hues of black and sand colored the intentionally claustrophobic space. The same shades washed over floors, walls, weaponry and even Peter Harrigan's costumes. Visual variety came from texture rather than color - the contrast between the glint of bare metal and dullness of rough wood.

The design enclosed the set, actors and audience together on the McCarthy Arts Center's stage. Chairs on risers allowed theatergoers to sit on either side of the narrow rectangle where the action unfolded. Suspended above, a catwalk connected the rooftops of two small utility rooms on either side of the stage. The hostage's "room" sat atop one of these utility buildings. He remained visible throughout the play, blindfolded and handcuffed in a metal chair when he wasn't participating in a scene.

For the interview segments, director Hurst had the actors use a real camera and TV monitor that showed a live feed of what the lens saw. The effect was powerful. Victor is a media-conscious murderer. He and the ratings-driven TV reporter are clearly cut from the same "image-is-everything" cloth. How they are coming off on camera means everything to them. They spend pages of dialogue arguing about this, and it was far more potent to show how the camera depicted them than just to hear them talk about it.

From a practical perspective, the monitor let audience members see the actors' faces when their backs were turned - inevitable given the tight layout and seating plan. The ability to glance back and forth between the actors on stage and on screen drove home the camera's perverse power. While the TV close-up intensified emotional expression, it also isolated feeling from context. The talking head took over: lost were body language and the words and actions of other people in the room.

Although the play definitely stimulates thought, Mastrosimone's script has fundamental weaknesses. Issues that required explanation in 1985 are now sadly old hat. Careful character development often takes a back seat to expounding ideas. The result is a talky play that feels somewhat dated and didactic, despite the timeliness of the topic.

This presented a tough challenge for the young actors, three of whom are just sophomores. How do you render meaningful portrayals of mediocre characters? Hurst might have coached her quartet to tap into deeper layers of motivation. For example, as the hostage, Gary DuBreuil had the most to work with - fear for his life! - and did the least with it. The biochemistry of stress would have created physical havoc after 35 days of captivity. But DuBreuil's hostage didn't seem terribly terrorized, just mildly anxious. His Stockholm Syndrome seemed an extension of politeness, not a desperate survival mechanism.

The actors playing Victor and Jessica tackled their tricky roles with greater success. Kevin Parise clearly relished playing the terrorist, but lacked sufficient sinister charisma to conjure a true master manipulator. Victor chooses his words carefully, but Parise's dialogue sometimes felt flat or rushed. His strongest work was showing the terrorist's visionary side, especially in the creepy scene where Victor vividly describes his dream demolition of the White House.

Miryam Andrews-Ohlman depicted Jessica's physical demeanor artfully: how her character layers the serious journalist persona over perky, telegenic polish. It seemed, however, as if the actress sometimes got distracted from her character's emotional world by constantly having to fiddle with the camera. Impressively, she did wrest some real tears when events pierce through Jessica's professional veneer.

Junior Victoria Townsend gave the most fully realized performance. As Cathy, she burned with the true believer's quiet intensity, manifested in her purposeful movement and unflinching gaze. Although Cathy spends most of the play silently observing the action, we should ultimately pay closest attention to her. Townsend showed clearly that Cathy never wavers from willingness to sacrifice everything for her cause.

With the character of Cathy, Mastrosimone outlined a lesson 20 years ago that still hasn't sunk in today. We don't have to accept the suicide bombers' way of thinking, but we damn well better understand it. This insight, and the other startling shadows of things to come in Cat's Paw, make you wonder. Why was a playwright's crystal ball this clear back in 1985, when the FBI and CIA had a much cloudier view of the future? Perhaps National Intelligence Estimates should be penned by scriptwriters rather than spooks.