Cause and Affect
By Tom Wachunas
“By giving in to our need to see mayhem, we give more power to the terrorists. We are all part of this deadly triangulation between the act of terror, the media coverage and the viewing.” – William Mastrosimone
The act of terror that forms the backdrop for William Mastrosimone’s drama, Cat’s Paw, directed by Brian Newberg and playing for one more weekend the Kent State University at Stark Theatre Department, is a car bomb incident in Washington, D.C., that killed 11 senators. The perpetrators are a tiny band of environmental activists headed by Victor (John-Michael Roberts) under the flag of Earth Now.
Desperate for media attention to their clean water cause, they kidnap one David Darling (David Sponhour), an EPA official they see as culpable in the deaths of thousands of U.S. citizens due to water pollution, and hold him hostage in an abandoned D.C. warehouse. Victor has his loyal compatriot, Cathy (Megan Deierling), bring a local TV journalist, Jessica (Sarah Peters), to the warehouse to do an interview. The warehouse here, by the way, is an effectively gloomy set, strewn about with weapons and bomb-making ingredients, by scenic designer Louis Williams).
What ensues over the next nearly 90 minutes (no intermission) is a vexing polemical exchange between reporter and terrorist - make that “eco-warrior,” as Victor insists. He’s easy enough to hate when he utters such specious maxims as, “A car bomb is a moral position.” John-Michael Roberts’ chilling portrayal of Victor is a mannered calculation of an exasperated, cooly detached psychopath who seems really tired of spewing his own misguided rhetoric. Other than in the “shocking and surprising” (that’s debatable) conclusion of the play, his most animated moments come when he locks horns with Jessica as they squabble about what should or shouldn’t be in her video interview.
And if there’s anyone who can argue with a sick mind, it’s Jessica, a self-possessed, vain and manipulative celebrity wannabe. Her arrogance and ego are every bit a match to Victor’s, and Sarah Peters plays the part with scary relish. But then, as the story develops, it’s fascinating to watch her slowly and skillfully shed her character’s cheeky artificiality and show signs of genuinely vulnerable humanity.
As Cathy, Megan Deierling is strong in an unexpectedly tender, off-kilter sort of way. She’s an oddly principled terrorist (caring as much about seal pups as she does human beings), and her feelings for Victor seem to add a dimension of fragility to her demeanor.
Speaking of fragility, much of David Sponhour’s remarkably intense presentation of the hapless Darling is an intriguing mix of woundedness and nervous if not repressed guilt. His oft-repeated line of “May I ask a question?” in jittery voice embodies the complicated heart of Mastrosimone’s writing.
It’s not surprising that we can be riveted by these proceedings and in some ways be imprisoned by them. The play brings to mind how our culture seems pathologically drawn to human disasters, and how easily our media can orchestrate our collective, impotent tongue-clucking and gnashing of teeth. But Cat’s Paw isn’t about viable answers or inspired responses to the horrific dilemma of terrorism, if only because we have none. Yet. I wonder if Mastrosimone foresaw in 1984, when he wrote the play (updated in 2010 with a few references to more contemporary incidents), how the many questions and concerns it posed then would loom exponentially larger in the new millennium?
To be sure, this is thoughtful, intelligent art. Then again, I’m reminded that it’s our best thinking that got us here. And that is truly…terrifying.
Cat’s Paw, (for mature audiences) in the Fine Arts Theatre of Kent State University at Stark, 6000 Frank Avenu NW, North Canton. Shows February 21 & 22 at 8 p.m., Feb. 23 at 2:30 p.m. Adults -$10, Seniors 55 and over - $7, KSU students free with current ID. Call box office at 330-244-3348
PHOTOS by Mike Rich, from top: John-Michael Roberts as Victor (left), David Sponhour as Darling; Sarah Peters as Jessica; Megan Deierling as Cathy; full cast