There is a moment in Deep Dish Theater Company’s production of Cat’s-Paw–a two-act play written by William Mastrosimone and directed by Paul Frellick–that rings so true, it almost takes your breath away. Television news anchor Jessica Lyons questions Victor, the self-styled “urban guerrilla leader” of an eco-terrorist group, about the human consequences of their violent acts. She asks Victor what he feels when confronted with images of stretchers, IV bottles, and dying people.
“Success,” he replies.
Victor then enlarges his answer, bringing his priorities into focus with an irrefutable logic. “Success is when they cancel the soap operas,” he pronounces. Victor’s concern for the purity of the world’s water supply is matched only by his obsession with press coverage for his group, the People’s Guard. And when it comes to the media, Victor is two parts savant and one part sycophant. He grants Lyons the exclusive rights to cover the story: The group has kidnapped an EPA official and demanded the publication of a Unabomberish “rambling tract regarding the evils of water pollution.” But five weeks later, no newspaper has complied, so the group explodes a McVeigh-like bomb near the EPA building in Washington, killing 27 people and bringing the city to a halt. “Army troops are at every intersection,” Victor’s compatriot Kathy reports. “I heard the President left the city.”
Victor’s zealous political commitment and his cognizance of the media’s importance combine to produce a power struggle between Victor and Jessica that defines the drama’s morally ambiguous center. They play a game of mutual flattery, manipulation and psychological brinkmanship that raises a number of familiar but important questions about ethics, the media and the political process. Their conflict gives the play its title: A cat’s-paw is a person used by others, a stooge or a pawn. The term derives from the fable of the cat who, after being convinced by a monkey that its paws resemble the master’s hands, rakes the master’s chestnuts from the fire. The cat burns its paws and the monkey savors the feast.
The cunning Victor has chosen Jessica as his cat’s-paw for several reasons. A fan of long standing, and therefore caught up in her manufactured image, he admires her bravado. As he plans the group’s next violent action, Victor acknowledges and encourages media complicity, raising the stakes for Jessica by factoring her presence into the event beforehand: “In the background, a car veers out of normal traffic . . . it just happens to be in view of your camera. . . . And Jessica Lyons goes into her standup. . . . Impromptu.”
The second reason is that he knows Jessica’s career is stalled. Late in a first act of mutual wheeling and dealing, Victor cannily appeals to Jessica’s ambition. If she worked with him, he predicts, she would rise from third-rate weekend anchor to claim top billing. Jessica repeatedly attempts to turn the tables on Victor, trying to influence Kathy–the next suicide bomber–and challenging Victor’s self-interested orchestration of media coverage. Yet Jessica also seeks to capitalize on her unprecedented access to newsworthy subjects, which offers a complex perspective on the interdependency of politics and media, and the questionable ethics on all sides.
Frellick’s direction draws out those ethical contradictions and his casting complicates audience expectations. Mark Filiaci (Victor) is as stereotypically imperious as John Allore (remarkably deft as the kidnapped Darling) is hapless. The latter skillfully provides much-needed comic relief. Yet neither character is what he seems to be. As Victor’s partner in crime, Hope Hynes (Kathy) exudes vulnerability and integrity, qualities that contrast with Jeri Lynn Schulke’s Jessica. Although fearful and nervous, the seasoned anchor still manages to reassess the volatile situation and to hold her own with the terrorists.
Frellick’s staging of Cat’s-Paw offers a lesson in historiography. What appear to be blatant references to domestic terrorism in the 1990s are instead evidence of Mastrosimone’s prescience. The play predates both the Unabomber’s 1996 apprehension (though not his lethal bombs, which he began deploying in 1978) and the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. Details in the drama eerily predict them both, from the 35,000-word anti-industrial tract that Theodore Kaczynski wanted the Washington Post and The New York Times to publish, to the fertilizer bomb Timothy McVeigh parked outside the Murrah Federal Building.
While the playwright’s uncanny ability to dramatize the psychological underpinnings of politically motivated violence is compelling, the power of this contemporary production of Cat’s-Paw is equally attributable to the freakish sense of dejà vu visited upon us since the recent Presidential election. Certainly the play is haunted by Reagan-era concerns, including the 1983 suicide bombing of the U.S. army barracks in Beirut and the controversial appointment of James Watt as Secretary of the Interior in 1981. But the play’s main source of fascination and horror is the realization that so little has changed, and, in fact, much has gotten worse–especially in terms of the environment, the cause for which Victor’s disciples are willing to die. In the Los Angeles Times in January of this year, Doug Kendall called interior secretary Gale Norton “James Watt in a skirt,” and pointed out the close professional ties between Norton and Watt. When Victor rattles off the list of toxic substances found in tap water, you can’t help but take notice when he gets to “arsenic.” The retrogressive posturing and politics of the oil barons in control of the White House make this play horrifyingly salient 15 years after its Seattle debut.
Mastrosimone’s evolving critique of violence in entertainment provides a different frame for the play. Beginning with Cat’s-Paw, his plays and films adopt a self-referential approach to violence in the media. In Like Totally Weird, two teenage boys hold their favorite movie producer and actor at gunpoint and force them to act out violent scenes from their films. Mastrosimone has called upon fellow writers to shoulder some responsibility for rising levels of violence among young people. At the “Guns Don’t Kill People . . .Writers Do” panel at the Writers Guild Foundation in 1999, he challenged screenwriters to consider the consequences of their art. In “Confessions of a Violent Movie Writer,” Mastrosimone writes that he developed a growing sense of shame after seeing Natural Born Killers and Pulp Fiction. “A line was crossed between artistry and social responsibility,” he contends. In Bang Bang You’re Dead, a play inspired by recent school shootings, a 14-year-old boy who has killed five classmates conducts a dialogue from his prison cell. The play, intended for performance in high schools to foster dialogue, is available royalty-free on the Internet.
The fledgling Deep Dish Theater Company has made a fascinating choice, not only because the play cogently expresses the frustration of a political group whose limited visibility leads to increasingly violent tactics, but also because it questions assumptions about our perceptions of extremism. Victor is abhorrent because he devalues the lives of his random victims. Yet in the course of doing his job, the EPA official has engaged in an equally repugnant corporate cost-benefit analysis, calculating the probabilities of death associated with poisoned water. In what has been understood as characteristically postmodern, the play is unwilling to champion a clear moral or political stance; all of its characters are compromised. However, by mounting this piece in 2001, in a period of growing activism, it may be possible to break through the impasse of political agency that plagued the 1980s.
For audience members interested in talking about these issues, Deep Dish will hold a discussion following the 3 p.m. performance on Sunday, Sept. 16.