THEATER | “Cat’s Paw” by Theatre Pro Rata: “How many terrorists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”


Near the conclusion of William Mastrosimone’s play Cat’s Paw, a hostage reveals a joke one of his kidnappers told him to make his captivity less bleak:

“How many terrorists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

“17. One to do the work, and 16 others to take the credit.”

The trick of Cat’s Paw is you think you’re watching a play about the one doing the work. The problem with Cat’s Paw is that you’re actually watching a play about one of the other 16.

When the play opens, a dozen offstage people are already dead. The tension in the play comes from its setup, one that seems to guarantee that by the end of its 90-minute run time, one or more or all of the four characters we get to meet onstage will also be dead. In the interest of remaining relatively spoiler-free, I’ll only say that one of those scenarios is correct. (“No one dying” in this instance is not an option that’s on the table. It’s too good a play to chicken out entirely.)

“Those kind of bloody hands come from ferocious love.”

About that set-up and those characters: Earth Now, a group of home-grown terrorists (or, as they prefer to be called “eco-warriors”), has stepped up their campaign to save the earth from its careless human inhabitants by doing three things.
• Kidnapping an official from the Environmental Protection Agency who Earth Now holds particularly responsible (amusingly named Mr. Darling) (Nathan Tylutki).
• Setting off a car bomb outside the Senate office building in Washington, D.C.
• Kidnapping scrappy reporter Jessica Lyons (Katherine Kupiecki), known for environmental investigative stories, to help them get their message to the world.

“3,000 people dead. Annually. It’s as if we had a 9/11 every year, and nobody noticed.”

Victor (David Beukema) is the charismatic leader of the D.C. Earth Now cell calling the shots. He’s down to one trusted assistant at the moment, Cathy (Katie Willer), because their compatriot Martin was the guy driving the car with the suicide bomb inside.

“Nerve gas. I was low bidder at an army auction.”

Why aren’t they just using the Internet like any other terrorist group, you ask?

Well, the play was originally written in 1985, before our eyeballs were all permanently attached to cyberspace. Also, prophetically, before 9/11 or even the Oklahoma City bombing. The play was updated in 2010 to reflect modern times, but the basic structure remains.

“Terrorist is not a word.”

Here’s the weird thing about Theatre Pro Rata‘s production of Cat’s Paw: it’s absolutely riveting, and enormously frustrating at the same time. It’s not quite 90 minutes long, no intermission. You can’t take your eyes off of it because something could go horribly wrong at any moment. The performances are all great. Director Carin Bratlie and her cast are plugged directly into this script in a major way. It’s gotten under their skin, and it’ll probably get under the skin of the people watching it as well.

“You went into your stand-up when a girl was burning ten feet in front of you.”

Beukema does a great job as Victor, the psychopath in charge. I’m used to seeing him in more comedic roles, but he is completely convincing as a deadly menace here. Willer gets a lot of the evening’s most chilling lines as a true believer who’s gone over the edge, but hasn’t completely lost her humanity—yet. Tylutki is a man totally broken by his weeks of captivity: a different kind of loose cannon in this dangerously confined space. Kupiecki is a lot of fun to watch as the reporter because you can literally see the wheels whirring just behind her eyes as she tries to figure out, from moment to moment, just how to spin this living nightmare, and these people, to her advantage and still get out alive.

“Decide where you stand. Move with the river of history.”

Julia Carlis’s set is fantastic. They’ve stripped the Gremlin Theatre space to its guts. No curtains. They’ve gone all the way out to the walls of the building itself to create a warehouse feel to the place where the Earth Now minions are holed up, along with a frightening array of weapons and bomb-making materials. Katherine Horowitz’s sound design, including a series of elaborate pre- and in-show newscasts, creates a real feeling of the outside world just beyond those warehouse walls. And it could close in at any moment.

“That’s when people care—when it’s too late.”

No, the problem isn’t the production. Like most Pro Rata outings, it’s a better production than any script (or writer) dare hope for. The problem is the script. The reason it’s so unsatisfying at the end is that the script is true to its title: and that means it’s about a coward.

“On our first date, we went out and blew up a bulldozer.”
“He’s a romantic.”

The story behind the title is a fable—a monkey convinces a cat to reach into a fire to get chestnuts, and in the end the monkey gets the chestnuts, but the cat’s paws are burned.

“After the bomb, I ceased to be a person.”

I wanted to be terrified by Victor. He was certainly unsettling. But in these times, theater could do us an enormous service by allowing us to get inside the heads of the people we choose to call terrorists. The people who would stop at nothing in fighting for their chosen cause. Cat’s Paw gets us so very, very close. But Victor will stop at something. He will never—willingly—sacrifice himself. In fact the only reason Victor is alive for this current mission is that he suffered a collosal failure of will during a significant event in the past—an event that brought him in contact with both Darling and Jessica for the first time.

“We must act as if there is still hope.”

Victor is dangerous because he’s more than willing to sacrifice everybody—everybody—else. Just not himself. So the more we learn about him, the less useful he becomes as a stand-in for actual terrorists. A play built around Cathy—a principled terrorist willing to give up her life, and able to articulate the reasons why (now that would be terrifying) and such a great use of art.

“I have the same feeling for a seal pup as a I do for a human being. If that bothers you, then you’re part of the problem.”

Even a play built around the unseen, but much discussed, and much beloved, Martin would be a clearer window into a dark world that’s living right alongside our own, just beyond our peripheral vision in fact. Martin’s the guy who told the lightbulb joke. Martin’s the guy who gave their captive a candy bar on his birthday. Martin’s also the buy who drove a car full of explosives up to the Senate building.

“You’re all whores for a trainwreck.”

Victor as the play ultimately reveals him, doesn’t interest me. Cathy and Martin fascinate me. While a play about either of them would probably twist me in knots, it would also bring me a better understanding of what the hell is going on in the world these days.

“Excuse me. You left your gun here.”

Mastrosimone created all these characters. He’s capable of going there. But like Victor, he didn’t. It’s not a failure of artistic ability. It’s a failure of will. It’s an amusement park ride that takes you on any number of crazy hairpin turns, then takes you all the way to the summit, but turns back, because the operator of the ride is afraid to plunge into the dark. Which is a damn shame. Becuase up until the moment Victor reveals the extent of his cowardly nature at the end, Cat’s Paw is one hell of a ride. And one worth taking. Just prepare yourself for an abrupt stop.

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