Slaughterhouse-Five or: The Children's Crusade
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 24, 2008
At the end of Godlight Theatre Company's riveting, devastating, uplifting production of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five Or: The Children's Crusade, I thought to myself: well, this will do it. People will see this and they'll finally understand that war has to end right now. So I'm doing my part. Go see Slaughterhouse-Five. It's remarkable theatre—cathartic, profound, and absolutely essential. And then write to your Congressperson and tell them to see it...and to take its message to heart.
Eric Simonson has adapted Vonnegut's famous novel for the stage (he did so in 1996; how is it that it only now is receiving its New York premiere?). Brilliant young director Joe Tantalo has put it on the almost-too-close-for-comfort stage of 59E59's smallest theatre, where the story of Billy Pilgrim unfolds, in multiple chronologies, simultaneously, right in front of us. (It is Simonson's very smart conceit that there are three Billy Pilgrims, so that we can sort out which period a particular section occurs in.)
The story, familiar to many reading this, is of a very ordinary but very remarkable man. Billy was the chaplain's assistant during his service in World War II, present at the bombing of Dresden: the prison where the Nazis kept Billy and his comrades was a converted slaughterhouse, giving the play its title. After the war, Billy spends time in a mental hospital, where he encounters Eliot Rosewater, a gentleman whose eclectic taste in reading leads him to the work of Kilgore Trout. Billy eventually marries and has a daughter. He also is captured by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, who teach him about the nature of time and relativity, among other things.
Tantalo realizes this fantasia as a kind of wonderland brought to life, with the fractured narrative mirrored by similarly fractured staging, a spare, unrealistic set, and Maruti Evans's extraordinarily evocative (almost hallucinogenic) lighting; the effect is to bring us as close to a four-dimensional theatrical happening as it's possible for us three-dimensional types to get. Andrew Recinos's masterful music and sound design contributes mightily to the experience, as does Hachi Yu's surreal movement and choreography. There's a moment early on, for example, when young Billy, wounded in battle, imagines that he is ice skating; then he starts to dance with another soldier. Tantalo and Yu bring such moments to vivid and unforgettable life here.
An ensemble of 10—though it feels like there must be at least twice that many—perform the piece. Darren Curley, Gregory Konow, and Dustin Olson are the three Billy Pilgrims, and Ashton Crosby is the narrator. Six others—David Bartlett, Deanna McGovern, Nick Paglino, Aaron Paternoster, Michael Shimkin, and Michael Tranzilli—demonstrate impressive versatility and talent portraying literally dozens of other characters from America, Germany, Tralfamadore—you name it.
Ultimately, though, it's Vonnegut's voice that predominates, as it should. Simonson's script condenses the novel but is, as far as I can tell, hugely faithful to it. Consider this excerpt from the literal and thematic center of the play:
TRALFAMADORIAN: What's the most valuable thing you've learned on Tralfamadore so far?
BILLY: How the inhabitants of a whole planet can live in peace! As you know, I am from a planet that has been engaged in senseless slaughter since the beginning of time.
The direct and matter-of-fact honesty of writing like that jolts, heard spoken aloud, in a way far more potent than I would have anticipated. Now we've just got to get people to really listen to it.