Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Slaughterhouse-Five or: The Children's Crusade

Photo/Donata Zanotti

Watching Godlight Theatre Company's production of Slaughterhouse-Five or: The Children's Crusade didn't make me feel unstuck in time so much as stuck in a theater. The adaptation, by Eric Simonson, is a good one, but Joe Tantalo's claustrophobic direction relies too heavily on the audience being avid fans of Kurt Vonnegut. The play opens, as we shuffle in, with Man (Ashton Crosby), standing over a drain flecked with dried blood, a giant cross of metal hooks, dog tags, and helmets hovering ominously above him. The cast waits visibly in the "wings" of the studio, backs to us, equally frozen in time. The actors look amateurish, and the setting is trivialized by the space -- an audience stepping gingerly over blood to get to their seats -- and what was so forceful on the page becomes remarkably gauche. "Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds," says Man, awkwardly doing his best to ignore the audience. And then: an electric throb of piano, a rotting sound effect and a spotlight meant to signal a "time shift." (In case you missed it, the next three characters to speak will stress that Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time.)

We don't get to hear the next lines from the book ("And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’”); instead, we get brief glimpses of Boy Billy (Darren Curley), being "taught" to swim by his Dad; a more coherent view of Young Billy (Dustin Olson) passively passing through World War II, from the the trenches to the POW camps in soon-to-be-fire-bombed Dresden; and the main narrative of Billy (Gregory Konow), whose big smile and endearing personality are enough not only to make us believe in his temporal condition and alien abduction, but in the show itself.

Now, if you haven't judged this book by its cover, the play begins to work. Violent cartoons like Roland ("You ever heard of the Iron Maiden") Weary and Paul ("I'll kill you") Lazzaro are done justice by the ensemble, their comic sneers an unsettling match for their subject matter, and cryptic characters like Kilgore Trout have thick layers of pain under their jovial smiles. The play constantly breaks its momentum with the "time shift," but it always picks up speed again, with characters sometimes literally spinning from one scene and role into another. Deanna McGovern, who plays all the female parts, does a good job -- intentionally or not -- of bleeding some of her physical traits from character to character, which blurs the lines further between times, though not ever enough for us to lose ourselves in the absurdity. The closest we get is with the excellent portrayal of the alien Tralfamadorians, palm-flashlights strapped to the actors wave like palm fronds in the night.

At best, the show comes off in a rapture of helpless glee, the sort found most often on the bearded face of Mr. Konow, who smilingly engages with the audience. At worst, the show remains as unbalanced as Mr. Crosby, who coldly lectures to the thin air. The play doesn't have to make sense (and without props, it won't to those who haven't read the book), but it does need to connect with the audience, otherwise the satire is simply clowning, and the big tragedies of war (and the small daily happinesses of life) come off as weird aliens in the night.

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