Theater / Performance

Slaughterhouse 5 (Curio Theater Company, 03Feb12)

CLAY SAYS....

To be fair, I think staging the twisty-turny narrative of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 would present even the most professional theater troupe with some significant challenges. The structure of the text is in no way linear or conventional; much like other of KV’s books, the story comingles author observations and character lives, often blurring (or destroying) traditional concepts of protagonist, narrator, and plot. SH5, as Kurt’s most recognized work, is a masterpiece of sideways storytelling, bringing together space aliens, schizophrenia, depression and World War II into a crazy, majestic stew of observation, reflection, and history.

image from Curio Theater website

The problems of staging this work are many; the book moves between time and place following the adventures of a protagonist who’s become ‘unhinged in time’. Furthermore, the book deals with legitimate WWII history while superimposing fantastic alien abductions and an increasingly unreliable narrator over Vonnegut’s real-life soldiering experiences. Confused yet? Many readers are.

Now, imagine trying to pack the many threads of this unusual 200-page book into a 90-minute play, all the while remaining true to the spirit and structure of the source material. Ambitious isn’t the word I’d use; folly might be a better way to phrase it. Sitting down to enjoy Curio’s interpretation expected a great deal from an audience–first and foremost being an unerring familiarity with the source text. And even this precaution would not guarantee an enjoyable experience.

Even as one who has read the book three times—and taught it to three classes of 11th and 12th grade students—I often found myself confused as to the point of a scene or it’s placement in the overall narrative. Though there was surely an arrangement to Curio’s scene selection and layout, I found myself struggling to understand what—or when—Billy’s adventures were happening. The play certainly achieves a sense of temporal dislocation, but any hope of theatrical flow or narrative cohesion are sacrificed at the altar of unconventional form. Aliens talk to Billy, suddenly he’s in the mental hospital, then he’s back in the boxcar heading to a prison camp. The director’s intention is loyal to the text, but by favoring form over story (which is legitimately great literature), the resulting performance ends up as a mishmash of confusion and disconnection, with the unhappy result of obscuring Vonnegut’s poignant anti-war message.

I can’t say I liked it, though I’ll give Curio an E for effort. Once again, the set design (incorporating puzzle-piece rolling risers, allowing actors to be shuttled on and off stage, in and out of “time”) shone through as a reason for this troupe to continue their efforts. But otherwise—and I’m just being honest–I didn’t find many reasons to recommend this experience to others.

As always, I’ll give my kudos to Curio’s set design; their work is consistently great.  Their sets are always interesting and make great use of their theater’s domed, irregular shape.  The troupe is able to manipulate the space to a show’s unique needs and never present a flat dimensionless stage.  There stages always include multiple dimensions and levels. “3-d” isn’t the right term but their stages tend to feel like a cube with action happening in every part and corner rather than a standard old 2-d stage….

Clay acted as my reference guide during the play, due to the fact that I had read this novel in high school but haven’t refreshed my memory of the text since then—so his help was a welcome assistance to ground me in the stage performance.  Although I respect Curio’s ambition, I did need assistance to “keep up” with the plot.  At other times, the pacing seemed too slow.

There were a few highlights to this performance of Slaughterhouse 5, including a well-done scene in which the players stood tightly on stage, swaying as if packed onto a train car.  The aliens (who speak to Billy Pilgrim) were also done with an interesting visual effect, manifested as green gloves on the players hands (think puppetry).  These one-eyed, blacklight-glowing aliens spoke in unison and made for a cool, eerie effect.

In the end, Slaughterhouse 5 by Curio was an ambitious undertaking that I enjoyed, but I wouldn’t necessarily gloat about it to my friends.

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