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Review: “Slaughterhouse Five” by Risk Theatre Initiative

by Jerome Weeks 18 Feb 2008 1:55 PM

Kurt Vonnegut’s once-radical treatment of the violence and absurdity of war through the use of a fragmented narrative style comes to the stage. Not entirely successfully.


During his life, author Kurt Vonnegut publicly acknowledged his indebtedness to the work of French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Celine. In fact, he wrote introductions to paperback editions of Celine’s last three novels, Castle to Castle, North and Rigadoon.

What inspired Vonnegut in Celine’s writing was its radical treatment of the violence and absurdity of war through the use of a fragmented narrative style, full of jump cuts, switch backs in time and (in Celine) even the collapse of grammar and paragraph structure. In Vonnegut, all of this wretched chaos is most famously on display in his anti-war masterwork, Slaughterhouse Five, currently presented by Risk Theatre Initiative.

It’s a typically ambitious project from producer Marianne Galloway — and a timely one, given the Iraq War. But unfortunately, Chicago writer-filmmaker Eric Simonson, who adapted the 1969 novel originally for the Steppenwolf company, has been doggedly faithful to the book. He squeezes in more of the novel — including Vonnegut himself as the narrator — than director George Roy Hill did in his superlative 1972 film version. But to little point: Sometimes, one needs to step back to get perspective, not dig in some more. Despite a few fleetingly effective performances and a theater-rattling sound design, this speedy, 90-minute staging is more restless than profound. Its rapid-fire scenes are likely to lose theatergoers not already familiar with the novel or film — more likely to lose them than touch them, certainly.

Dresden after 1945 firebombing

Dresden, Germany, after the February 1945 Allied bombing

For those not already familiar with novel or film: In nonlinear fashion, Slaughterhouse Five follows hapless American POW Billy Pilgrim as he stumbles through life and death. Captured by the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge, he and other American soldiers are safely quartered in Dresden — only to have the city obliterated by Allied bombers in the single most devastating aerial operation before Hiroshima. Whether you feel the attack was justified (by the Nazi fire bombing of Birmingham) or not, it was a clear example of what’s come to be called “terror bombing,” an effort to cow a civilian population and not a military target.

But significantly, Billy has been “unstuck in time,” so Vonnegut’s recollections about the war are intercut with Billy’s trips to the planet Tralfamadore, his later domestic life as an optometrist, his put-upon childhood. In effect, Vonnegut uses science fiction to stitch together and give cosmic significance to elements that in Celine’s fiction remain an aggressive, earthbound jumble.

To a degree, both Vonnegut and Celine are satirists, morally outraged by the horrors, meaninglessness and sham they’ve witnessed. But their differences are revealing: Celine’s bilious sarcasm is distinct from Vonnegut’s whimsical despair, his sadsack humor. Celine rages and sneers and whimpers; Vonnegut empathizes, takes a few shots, slips into a Buddha-ish transcendence — and shrugs.

So it goes.

Consequently, Slaughterhouse Five is rather slippery (one might say “paradoxical”) in its attitude toward war — and toward death. Vonnegut repeatedly shows how horrid and pointless war can be, but through the Tralfamadorean wisdom that Billy imbibes, he also offers a tactic of disengagement, the sense that, taking the long view, little of this really will matter. (“It’s silly to be frightened of death.”) Because they see past, present and the future as eternally present, the Tralfamadoreans are bewildered by our human need to assign a causal sequence to events (just as the novel offers no causal timeline). But if, as these extraterrestrials declare, “There is no why,” then there is no responsibility, either. If causation doesn’t exist, why hold the Nazis responsible for the death camps? Why argue about whether the bombing of Dresden was justified? We’re just “bugs stuck in amber.”

As Vonnegut-the-narrator, T. A. Taylor brings a comfortable resemblance to the author, a dry touch with comedy and a convincing way with a cigarette. To my taste, he also hits Vonnegut’s introductory remarks with too much vehemence and not the regret and surrender one can hear in the famous sigh, “So it goes.” This is a man, after all, who sets off on a reunion tour of Dresden with a fellow veteran, only to conclude that he never wants to talk about the firebombing again. (In the interest of full disclosure, T. A. and I are friends — but you can find another appreciation of his performance here). Brad Davidson wonderfully embodies the spineless young Billy — a creature so pathetic, you want to save him and to slap some sense into him at the same time. And Jim Kuenzer is an appealing Ordinary Good Guy as Edgar Derby and a sweet, smiley-face survivor as Elliot Rosewater.

Most of the other actors have little opportunity to make much of a lasting impresson because their scenes rarely last more than a minute or two. Some are little more than black-out sketches. Nothing is allowed to settle, to matter, only emphasizing the lack of consequence. As a result, even if theatergoers are well-prepped and can follow the zillion time shifts, we don’t feel much for anyone. Mr. Simonson, for example, retains much more material about sci-fi author Kilgore Trout (Brian Witkowicz) who doesn’t even exist in the film version. Yet Trout (loosely based on real-life Theodore Sturgeon) doesn’t connect to any other character. He just sprinkles in some more oddball, sci-fi whimsy.

In trying to solve the staging problems presented by such a cross-galaxy, cross-decade story, Mr. Simonson, director Galloway and set designer Clare Devries wisely do not try to replicate the beauties of Dresden or the spectacle of their destruction. The entire, gloomy set is done up in distressed planking, as if it were the inside of one of the railroad cars that transferred POWs to Dresden. But the most effective design, as noted earlier, is Heath Gage’s use of sound effects. In fact, it probably would be better if the audience were to remain in the roaring dark even longer during the firebombing — just to gain some emotional impact, even if it’s deafness and awe.

Still, it may not be entirely the adaptation’s fault that we don’t feel more for Vonnegut and his characters. I don’t mean to reduce the novel (or play) to a matter of mere symptom relief, but after all these years — and all the experience we’ve had with shell-shocked vets — what Slaughterhouse Five feels like today is an attempt to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder: the gallows humor, the pervasive depression and lack of affect, the compulsion to re-tell or re-live events as a way to organize experiences, control them, soften them.

The first time one encounters such a damaged outlook in print or film (or on the stage), it can be affecting. And it can stay with you. In a New York Times op-ed appreciation that appeared after Vonnegut’s death last year, Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote that adolescence is the best time to encounter Vonnegut — “just when you begin to suspect that the world is not what it appears to be… No one nourishes the skepticism of the young like Vonnegut.”

Part of Slaughterhouse Five‘s power came — for me, at least, when I first read it and saw the film — it came from what seemed its freshness, its unwillingness to fall into the usual postures or attitudes (yes, it’s anti-war but it isn’t an easy polemic, a howl of outrage). Vonnegut’s response suits a teen’s early encounter with something as overwhelming or confounding as the Holocaust or cosmic meaninglessness. Vonnegut’s response is deeper than ordinary flippancy in the face of death but more amusing than the usual adolescent anguish, either.

If one can sift any of that out of Risk Theatre’s hyperkinetic little epic, all to the good. Yet in the end, Vonnegut’s stance appears more knowing, more wearily profound, than it really is: “Hello, farewell,” as the Tralfamadoreans greet everyone. “Hello, farewell.”

Right. And as the shampoos tell us, Lather, rinse, repeat. It’s really about as wise. Not surprisingly, Klinkenborg also wrote, “Vonnegut is not, now, somehow serious enough.”