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Tuesday, January 27, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 27.0° F  Overcast
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Solid acting not enough to save Cat's Paw by Strollers Theatre
What the message is isn't ever clear.
What the message is isn't ever clear.

The challenge with reviewing a show like Strollers Theatre's latest, Cat's Paw, which opened Thursday night at the Bartell, is that the actors, the director, and the crew have done an absolutely fine job. But the material itself is another story. Written by Daytime Emmy winner William Mastrosimone, Cat's Paw is rife with problems -- sufficiently so that it probably precludes doing anything more than a fine job.

Take, for example, Patrick O'Hara's performance as Victor, the leader of an environmental terrorist organization responsible for a kidnapping and a car-bombing massacre. Victor is a control freak, a man on a mission to show the world how things really are, but unable to face any hard truths about himself. And outside of occasionally rushing too quickly through his long, overwrought monologues, O'Hara plays him so naturally he's genuinely menacing.

The trouble is, Victor isn't a character you want to spend two hours in a room with. It's not that he's angry and a zealot and kills people -- those characters are often among the most interesting to watch. But Victor is one-dimensional, and remains one-dimensional throughout the show, until he abruptly undergoes a change of heart, for which little to no groundwork has been laid, and then recounts what's supposed to be a deeply moving tale from his past, but is really just a tacked-on attempt to generate artificial sentiment.

Each of the other characters has such a tale, too, unfortunately -- it's lazy storytelling at its laziest. And that, coupled with the severe purpleness of the dialogue, doesn't leave the four-person cast much room to work. ("How did we get so lost?" is a hard sell, but it's nothing compared with "The hot blood of seal pups turned to ice before it hit the snow.") Karen Saari, as a TV reporter whose career more closely resembles Lois Lane's than any real journalist's, fares best, since her job description would require her to affect highfalutin jargon even in real life. Especially early on, she's a great, ballsy counterpoint to Victor's preening overconfidence.

But the writing eventually becomes more self-consciously concerned with trying to pose profound questions about the role of the media, and she too starts to behave inconsistently and inorganically in service to the show's message. What that message is isn't ever clear -- there are far too many half-baked themes running through the text to pick one out.

Mark Huismann portrays a Stockholm syndromestricken hostage skillfully, and Jessica Warpula does an admirable job with maybe the hardest role. (Although she's awfully clean-cut -- is a fanatic eco-warrior allowed to shop at Old Navy?) But no matter how capable the actors are, Cat's Paw fails them by refusing to treat their characters like authentic people whose words and actions make sense.

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