This is war: The grunts can't go home because the men in charge keep raising the number of missions, and no one ever knows what's really happening because the same big shots can write whatever they want in their "official reports." It's an astounding bureaucratic circus of deals and compromises executed by a callous and ineffectual chain of command. Sound familiar? Catch-22 is a story for the ages, as sound political commentary now during George W's war as it was when Joseph Heller wrote it in 1961 as a critique of World War II.
Theater Schmeater's production of Heller's stage adaptation (through Sat., Feb. 25; 206-325-6500, www.schmeater.org), directed by Josh Beerman, is a darkly funny and painfully relevant antiwar satire. Capt. John Yossarian (Brian Claudio Smith), lead bombardier of the 256th squadron, is caught in the "catch" of the title: He can get discharged if he proves he's insane. But everyone knows that if he wants to escape combat, he must be in his right mind, ergo his insanity cannot be proved. Catch-22 is filled with such circular logic, an absurd barrage of no-win situations that lead Yossarian, his commanders, and his crew on a slow and maddening descent into the surreal.
Smith plays Yossarian as a normal soldier surrounded by a cast of outrageous comrades: neurotic hypochondriac Doc Daneeka (Philip D. Clarke), lovestruck Nately (Sean Patrick Taylor), reclusive Maj. Major (James Weidman), simpering A.T. Tapmann, the squadron chaplain (Jason Marr), and a whole host more. Yossarian is lucid and frantic in turns; as the only truly sane member of the squadron, he watches (and begins to lose it) as the others barrel toward their inevitable, untimely ends.
Schmeater's production runs machine-gun fast through scene changes and characters, all played by 10 actors. Assigning multiple roles to individual actors works both with and against the story. It amplifies the schizophrenic atmosphere of life in a war zone, but on some occasions the role-switching muddies the water, making the plot almost too frenetic to follow. Nevertheless, one can't help but feel in the middle of a fever dream when Capt. Black, played by Rob Jones, who was only moments before in the role of meek and geeky ex-Pfc. Wintergreen, struts onstage hollering, "Eat your livers, youuuuuu bastards!! HAHAHAHAA!"
Heller's script, having sacrificed much of the agonizing, introspective detail of the novel, does seem a bit like Cliffs Notes. And at times, the repartee moves at such a breakneck pace that it loses some of its original finesse. Yet Schmeater's rendition remains true to the spirit of the original, and the actors execute the story finely with quick, snappy dialogue that conveys an appropriate sense of panicked urgency.
Catch-22 packs a punch not so much for its statements about mortality and the inevitability of death (for that is the doomed gunner Snowden's secret: Man is matter), but for its critique of bureaucracy. As the play progresses, Schmeater's stage, and Yossarian's life, becomes strewn with an obscene paper trail of epic proportion. At every turn, there is another memorandum, another excuse, another catch—and no simple way out of a bloody mess.