The Catch-22 of Absurdist Comedy

This review contains spoilers

Art by Navita Wijeratne

Joseph Heller’s highly acclaimed satire-ridden war novel, Catch-22, made a spectacular stage-play debut earlier this year in March. Run by NUTS (the National University Theatre Society) and directed by Rowena McPhee, the circular wit of Heller’s absurdist-tale was translated into a vibrant and energetic two-hour show.

 

The play is set on the coastal Italian island of Pianosa during the height of WWII. It follows the deployment of American air-bombardier and anti-hero, Captain John Yossarian (played by Nic Mayrhofer). Throughout the play, we follow his efforts to escape the futility of death in combat. When he discovers that he can be discharged from military service on the account of insanity, he concocts a plan: avoid combat duties by faking insanity. But here’s the catch: if you’re sane enough to ask to be grounded, you’re also sane enough to fly. In fact, his request to be declared insane is an ironic demonstration of his own sanity. As Doc Daneeka (played by Dhiiren Moganaraju) calmly explains to both Yossarian and the audience, anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy. You’d be insane to fly more missions but sane if you didn’t. Only the sane would claim to be so in the hopes of being found insane-enough to avoid flying bombing missions.

 

This paradoxical logic of Catch-22 is executed soundly by the production crew and mastered by the eleven-set cast. The fact that most of the cast were also required to play multiple character roles was both confusing and impressive to watch unfold! From the outset, the vocality and energy of the actors was excellent. Their long monologues were packed with a highly powered moral appeal. The triangular-discussions would overflow with such expressive animation that– even seated at the very back end of the theatre– I could see angry spittle escaping from underneath Colonel Cathcart’s lopsided moustache (played by Nicholas Bermingham). Indeed, the broad range of character roles performed by the entire cast was excellent: from the timid and moral abiding Chaplain (played by Mischa Rippon) to the flirty Italian prostitute, Luciana (played by Katya Speranski).

 

Another great success of the play was its ability to balance (but not compromise on) the plot’s discomfortingly realist developments with interruptions of ironized comedy. This style of ‘gallows humour’ is what forms the legacy of Heller’s infamous story. Magically, NUTS preserved this stylistic essence with intertextual accuracy and ease. As previously described, Catch-22 is a dilemma where an individual’s actions are constrained by contradictory controls. In the first act of the play, Yossarian’s rational plan to escape from the irrational rules of bureaucratic leadership is rather entertaining. Perpetually, we watch how Cathcart suspiciously– or rather, knowingly– raises the number of flying missions needed to be sent home just as Yossarian meets the target number. It is precisely this antithetical and roundabout conundrum of his catch-22 situation (also surmising Heller’s entire plot) that is laughed off by us audience members. However, by the second act, the price of this comic effect is backhandedly realised. When Yossarian is confronted by the dying breath of his close friend, Snowden (played by Alana Grimley), it becomes clear that within the theatre of war and politics, Yossarian’s fear of death is absolutely justified.

 

NUTS’ rendition of Catch-22 managed to portray the tangible effects of war, death and tragedy in a way that captured the timbre and tone of Heller’s absurdist humour. For the most part, the pacing and scene changes were brilliantly swift, albeit a bit hard to follow at times (but then again, try keeping up with a condensed 500-page classic and over 50 named characters!). Overall, Catch-22 was a marvellous theatrical start to 2022. It was an absolute treat to watch the cast and crew distil Heller’s complex storyline into a succinct two-act play. From the casting ensemble’s charmingly dark jokes to the chaotic chase scenes in-and-out of Major Major’s window, NUTS presented a dynamic, expressive, and compelling stage-play. If you missed out on tickets for Catch-22, look out for their next production, Dracula.

 

For more details on the cast, crew and production team, check out their digital programme as well as their Facebook page for upcoming shows.