Kurt Vonnegut was a controversial author, and his 1969 satirical novel SLAUGHERHOUSE-FIVE was no exception. Based very loosely on Vonnegut’s experiences as a POW during World War II, the novel tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who becomes “unstuck in time.” The author uses his story to explore the concepts of fate and free will, as well as the illogical nature of human beings—subjects he visits in a number of his works. Vonnegut’s aliens, The Tralfamadorians, represent the belief in war as inevitable. One plot twist is their accidental destruction of the universe—for which they feel no upset or remorse. They merely utter the oft-repeated phrase “So it goes.” Vonnegut is making the point that ignoring a war is unacceptable when we have free will. However, he stops short of stating that we actually have free will; leaving open the possibility that he is satirizing the concept of free will as a product of human irrationality. Ranked the 18th greatest English novel of the 20th century by Modern Library, it is generally recognized as Vonnegut’s most influential and popular work.
SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE has been the subject of many attempts at censorship, due to its irreverent tone and purportedly obscene content. Vonnegut’s depiction of American soldiers is very realistic—including profanity, which still raised hackles in 1969. The book lso depicts sex, which, in spite of the whole “free love” hippie era, was very taboo. And it was one of the first literary acknowledgments that homosexual men, referred to in the novel as “fairies,” were among the victims of the Nazi Holocaust. In the USA it has at times been banned from literature classes, removed from school libraries and struck from literary curricula; however, it is still taught in some schools.
West Philly’s Curio Theatre Company is mounting Eric Simonson’s stage adaptation as the next-to-last production of their 7th season at the Calvary Center. Seven company members tackle the multitude of characters that populate the story. Director Jared Reed puts them through their paces in this 90 minute (no intermission) version of Vonnegut’s story. Steve Carpenter gives a solid performance as Billy. You can understand the character’s confusion—and exhaustion—as his life seems to be beyond his control. An emotion many of us can fully relate to. He is joined by Josh Hitchens, Paul Kuhn, Ken Opdenaker, Jerry Rudasill, Jennifer Summerfield and Ryan Walter. Strong work is done by each member of the ensemble—with a special shout out to Ms. Summerfield, who creates nuanced differences as she portrays all of the women in Billy’s life.
It is exceedingly difficult to describe the plot, as it bounces all over the place and there are characters popping in and out. I will do my best to give a short summary: Chaplain’s Assistant Billy Pilgrim, a disoriented, fatalistic and ill-trained American soldier, is captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. Billy and his fellow prisoners are housed in a disused slaughterhouse in Dresden known as “Slaughterhouse #5.” POWs and German guards alike hide in a deep cellar and because of their safe hiding place, they are some of the few survivors of the city-destroying firestorm during the Bombing of Dresden in World War II. [All of this is based on Vonnegut’s own experiences in WWII.]
Billy experiences past and future events out of sequence and repetitively, following a nonlinear narrative. He is kidnapped by extraterrestrial aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who subsequently exhibit him in a zoo with B-movie starlet Montana Wildhack as his mate. The Tralfamadorians, who can see in four dimensions, have already seen every instant of their lives and believe there is no such thing as “free will.” They are proponents of pre-destination in all of our existences, and Billy becomes convinced of the veracity of their theories. Billy’s attempt at a normal middle-class life in the Eisenhower Era is also depicted.
The story is loaded with characters and the company makes quick transitions from one to another. Costumer Aetna Gallagher has provided each with a basic ensemble upon which identifying pieces are added as they morph from one role to the next. Once again, set designer Paul Kuhn (this time with an assist from Hugo Delago) has given the cast an interesting playground on which to create. The back wall of the space is a Star Trekesque lunarscape; in front of this there is a set of eight slightly raked rectangular platforms. Joined together, they show a beautifully painted clock with several scenes appearing throughout. Created by Delago, it is a smorgasbord for the eyes. As the action of the play unfolds, these platforms are slid in and out to create various configurations as the story moves from location to location. Lighting design was provided by Leigh A. Mumford; her work elicits the appropriate mood and focuses attention where needed. Patrick Lamborn’s eerie sound design gets the audience in the right mindset for science fiction. It works its way into your psyche throughout the pre-show and stays suitably “Outer Limits.”
I am always impressed with Reed’s directorial efforts, and here was no exception—I just wasn’t enthralled by the script. While I enjoyed the work of all involved in the production, I was not as drawn into the events as I usually am at Curio—a company of good storytellers. There were several bright, shiny moments throughout, however. Rudasill, Hitchens and Walter added some humor in a number of places, and Kuhn and Opdenaker were solid anchors as usual. Perhaps it would help to have read Vonnegut’s novel prior to seeing the production, I don’t know. Or maybe, Simonson’s adaptation isn’t clear enough; when a story is that non-linear, things need to be overly precise and clear. It got kind of muddled at times for my companion and I.
It’s a challenging evening of theatre that will probably please the science-fiction buffs amongst us. Check it out let me know your take on it.
by Kurt Vonnegut
Adapted for the stage by Eric Simonson
Directed by Jared Reed
February 2-March 3, 2012
Curio Theatre Company
4740 Baltimore Avenue
Philadelphia, Pa 19143
For tickets call 215-525-1350
I just wanted to tell you how much I appreciated your review of SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE. I can’t imagine the stage play, but, without seeing it, I am sure the elements you focused on had to be a real directing challenge. Vonnegut is no easy study, but I think has opportunity shine in theatre with the right touch.
I took a seminar in Vonnegut in college and read all of his books up to Breakfast of Champions–the latest at that time. I actually wrote a paper that all of Vonnegut’s books had elements of science fiction in them. I can’t imagine a play that works without careful regard to Vonnegut’s themes and juxtaposition. Great job, Ellen!