Review: ‘Slaughterhouse Five’ at Custom Made Theatre Company (**1/2)

(Charles Kruger)


American prisoners of war are transported to Dresden by boxcar in "Slaughterhouse Five" at Custom Made Theatre. Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.
American prisoners of war are transported to Dresden by boxcar in “Slaughterhouse Five” at Custom Made Theatre. Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“Slaughterhouse Five” plays at the Gough Street Playhouse through October 12, 2014.)

Kurt Vonnegut’s post modern masterpiece, “Slaughterhouse Five”, appears on many lists along the lines of “100 Best Books” of the 20th century. In typically post modern fashion, it tells a story while simultaneously undermining the trustworthiness of the narrator, as indicated in its famous opening line: “All this happened, more or less.”

In the first chapter, Vonnegut himself appears to be the narrator (but is this the real Vonnegut?) who assures us that he was personally present at the bombing of Dresden during World War II, and thus can be considered an eye witness to the events of the story. But the events which follow are jumbled, out of sequence, bizarre and include such details as an interplanetary kidnapping, and an unlikely affair between the book’s antagonist and a porn star that takes place in a cage in a zoo on a planet called Tralfamador whose inhabitants resemble plumbers’ helpers. This nonsense is interspersed with descriptions of the bombing of Dresden and the behavior of American prisoners of war, as well as other more-or-less “normal” details of the protagonist’s life on earth. The implication seems to be that nothing makes sense: the horrific accidents of war are as absurd and meaningless as aliens who look like plumbers’ helpers or conventions of optometrists. Everything is equally horrifying and equally meaningless and, in Vonnegut’s brilliant treatment, equally funny. In his narrative, Vonnegut’s tone does not differentiate between realism and absurdity, thus making the absurd seem real and the real absurd until it is impossible to know which is which. He repeatedly punctuates his examples of the absurdity of life with the wry refrain “and so it goes”.

Billy Pilgrim has a vision. Photo credit: Jay Yamada.
Billy Pilgrim has a vision. Photo credit: Jay Yamada.

This complex material does not easily lend itself to adaptation. In my view, Eric Simonson’s effort, as interpreted by director Brian Katz, does not entirely succeed. I suspect it is not really possible to make narrative sense of the material. It is more like a series of absurdist images whose impact is primarily emotional. The intellectual and narrative content only begins to register upon reflection. This production failed to work for me, I think, because it is presented episodically and tries to make sense. For example, as Billy Pilgrim skips through time, each jump is indicated by an intrusive music cue, and a repeated physical motion that clearly marks the transition. This serves rather to blunt the impact of the story’s outrageously random movement and seems to be more stultifying than clarifying.

Another jarring element is the presence of Vonnegut as narrator. In the book the narrator “Vonnegut” is not a real person, but a character who has the same name as the author. This nuance is glossed over by an actor made up and costumed to look like the real Vonnegut and speaking in a logical way about the events.

The effect of these flaws is to translate Vonnegut’s abstract, aburdist, fantastic, outraged and outrageous comic and tragic poem of a novel into prose. The story remains intact, but the poetry is sacrificed for the sack of clarity.

Director Katz chooses to close the show with a recording of the song, “We’ll Meet Again”, a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s brilliantly absurd anti-war film, “Dr. Strangelove”. It is clear that Katz intended this production to be equally funny and shocking, and that he truly loves this material. His desire to explain the unexplainable (or “ef the ineffable” in Robert Anton Wilson‘s happy phrase) has undermined his success.

This is not to say that the production is dull. It has many fine moments, and some excellent performances, especially in the work of Sam Tillis as a crazed soldier intent on vengeance. Tillis is a talented actor with an unusual and charismatic stage presence, making his Custom Made Theatre debut. Based on this performance and other recent success, he should be cutting quite a figure in the SF theatrical scene for some time to come.

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“Slaughterhouse Five” by Eric Simonson, adapted from the novel by Kurt Vonnegut. Director: Brian Katz. Scenic Design: Sarah Phykitt. Lighting Design: Maxx Kurzunski.  Costume Design: Karina Chavarin. Video Design: Rebecca Longworth. Sound Design: Liz Ryder. Movement: Daunielle Rasmussden. 

Man: Davie Sikula. Billy Pilgrim: Ryan Hayes. Young Billy Pilgrim: Brian Martin. Boy Billy Pilgrim/Ensemble: Alun Anderman/Myles Cence (alternate performances). Valencia/Derby/Ensemble: Stephanie Ann Foster. Weary/Rosewater/Ensemble: Sal Mattos. Chetwynde/Campbell/Ensemble: Chris Morrell. Barbara/Tralfamadorian/Ensemble: Jessica Jade Rudholm. Montana/Dotty/Ensemble: Carina Lastimosa Salazar. Trout/Reggie/Ensemble: Paul Stout. Lazzaro/Rumfoord/Ensemble: Sam Tillis.


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