A CurtainUp Review
Slaughterhouse-Five or The Children's Crusade
By Elyse Sommer
I remember the fun my friends and I had with Vonnegutspeak after reading Cat's Cradle (granfalloon, which became any group of people with no particular deeper meaning— or conversely, a karass referring to people whose lives are profoundly entwined in yours). These words and, of course, his frequent verbal shoulder shrugging "so it goes." have remained ingrained in the vocabulary of many Vonnegut fans.
Slaughterhouse-Five, the combination war memoir and time traveling, absurdist story gestated for years before it became something of a modern day anti-war fiction classic. It's hero, Billy Pilgrim, got "unstuck in time", meaning that we follow certain parts of his life in random order, without beginning, middle, or ending. Sometimes we're with him during his time as a P.O.W. in Dresden during World War II (as was Vonnegut). Other times the focus is on his life as a married man, and then there is his experience on the planet Tralfamadore.
In print Vonnegut's complex jump-about, never-ending biographical puzzle demands close attention but is not hard to follow. However, to move it from page to stage or screen with its philosophical nuances and idiosyncratic style intact presents a seemingly insurmountable challenge. This was borne out by a 1972 film version which met with mixed reactions. However, given Godlight Theatre Company artistic director Joe Tantalo's previous success with tough to adapt works by Ray Bradbury and Anthony Burgess (see review links below), if anyone could make Billy Pilgrim successfully jump off the page without dishonoring the original material, he's the man. Working with Eric Simonson's stage adaptation, Tantalo has indeed again created a stylishly unconventional theatrical experience. If nothing else, he and his production team deserve top marks for using the claustrophobically small Theater C with remarkable dramatic effectiveness.
While Simonson's adaptation does manage to embrace the book's essence, the inventive staging at times tends to upstage its source. By dividing the ten-member cast into three groups and positioning them in the three corners of theater's the in-the-round audience configuration whenever they're not on stage heightens the viewers' feeling of being inside this at times surreal world. The playing area, with its blood splattered floor and army dog tags and helmets suspended from the ceiling, evoke the horror of the war experience that seeded the novel.
The high concept, small budget staging works to draw the audience right in, but the sense of excitement created by the venue's intimacy and being surrounded by the actors is likely to give way to confusion for anyone unaccustomed to non-traditional, non-linear theater. Even off-beat theater enthusiasts are likely to have trouble sorting things out if they haven't read the book and I'm not persuaded that Eric Simonson has really resolved this potential problem by revising his 1996 adaptation for the Steppenwolf Theatre so that three actors instead of one portray the three different stages of Billy's pilgrimage (yes, the name IS a metaphor, just as that bloody floor and dog tags and helmets are metaphors for the butchery of the events before, during and after the Dresden bombing).
Though I recommend reading the book first, Tantalo's tight direction and the dynamic visual and sound elements go a long way to make the play stand on its own, and keep the audience engaged even when they're lost in the maze of Billy's life. Those who are familiar the book will find a good many of Vonnegut's details omitted. However, as the following h'ors doeuvre sized plot summary indicates, most of his themes are addressed:
An authorial stand-in and narrator (Ashton Crosby) sets the scene per the novel's prologue. This older man is Vonnegut returning to the scene where as an American soldier (young Billy Pilgrim) and chaplain's aide was captured by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. Billy and other prisoners are transported to a Dresden slaughterhouse converted into a prison. that the Germans use as a makeshift prison. The prisoners and their guards live through the Dresden bombings in a cellar, and the mayhem experienced by the survivors affects sensitive young men like Billy forever. For Billy it leads to his becoming "unstuck in time" and the ensuing jumps between his wartime life, his civilian life and his experience on the alien inhabited planet called Tralfamadore.
The subtitle is a reference made in the prologue by Vonnegut's war buddy Bernard O'Hare and his wife Mary to the 13th Century crusaders who raised an army of children in Germany and France and then sold them off as slaves in North Africa. The book actually had a third subtitle: A Duty-Dance With Death.
Much as what's best about this production can be attributed to Tantalo's helmsmanship, credit is also due to Hachi Yu, the movement director. Yu and fight director Josh Renfree help the actors segue fluidly from scene to scene, theme to theme, real to otherworldly. The three actors playing Billy (Darren Curley, Dustin Olson and Gregory Konow), as well as the ensemble players are competent, with Deanna McGovern holding her own as all the women.
Unfortunately, the rather bland Ashton Crosby made at least this viewer, who was lucky enough to once meet the charismatic Vonnegut, wish Tantalo had found a more dynamic thespian to play this part —someone with the drollness expressed in the longest by-line I've ever read: "By Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a fourth-generation German-American now living in easy circumstances on Cape Cod [and smoking too much], who, as an American Infantry Scout hors de combat, as a prisoner of war, witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, 'the Florence of the Elbe,' a long time ago, and survived to tell the tale. This is a novel , somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore, where the flying saucers come from. Peace." Besides not possessing any of Vonnegut's physical charm, Crosby's use of the "so it goes" mantra is merely a throwaway line instead of that memorable verbal shrug.
Is this almost forty-year-old novel too dated to be a truly relevant modern play? Unfortunately, whatever form the story takes, the potential for often needless cruelty that war brings out in all of us, as well as wars to do so, continues, making Slaughterhouse-Five depressingly up to date. And so it goes.
Links to review of other Godlight productions
©Copyright 2008, Elyse Sommer.
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