October 22, 2004    




Another tour of duty for 'Catch-22'


The U.S. Army Reserve soldiers who refused a delivery mission in Iraq last week might have been channeling the spirit of Capt. Yossarian, the skeptical bombardier of Joseph Heller's classic 1961 novel "Catch-22."


Like those present-day reservists, the fictional Yossarian keeps getting his WWII tour of duty extended by commanders without an apparent exit plan, which begins to convince him that anyone who might get him killed -- including superiors who send him on dangerous missions -- is his mortal enemy.


Though scarcely as rattling as it was in its day, this subversive atheist-in-a-foxhole spirit survives in a new production of Heller's own stage version of "Catch-22" at West Coast Ensemble. On Evan A. Bartoletti's evocative set -- modular asylum curtains made of repurposed parachutes -- director Claudia Jaffee's spry, versatile cast ranges fleetly and convincingly, keeping up a kvetchy, rapid-fire drumbeat of mounting absurdity largely missing from Mike Nichols' bloated 1970 film.


Yossarian is played by the engaging Robert Gantzos, who evokes Jimmy Stewart by way of Kafka, his haunted eyes belying his strapping physique. Also standing out are John Marzilli, as a contrasting pair of clay-footed authority figures -- timorous Major Major and lip-smackingly corrupt Col. Cathcart -- and Gary Cearlock as a tender chaplain and an oblivious shrink.


Michael Spellman, James Sharpe, Matt J. Popham and Adam Silverstein score droll comic points in a variety of roles, with Madelynn Fattibene and Larisa Miller giving dimension to assorted female roles.


Though the production noticeably strains, particularly in its second half, to keep up with Heller's overpopulated adaptation, there's heft and bite in its timeless portrait of a man at war with war.

--Rob Kendt


"Catch-22," West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea Ave., Hollywood. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 21. $22. (323) 525-0022. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.