Better Than the Book | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Better Than the Book 

A nip and a tuck give Kurt Vonnegut's 1959 novel a new urgency.

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The Sirens of Titan

Lifeline Theater

I read Kurt Vonnegut obsessively between the ages of 17 and 25. I enjoyed his sardonic wit--only Vonnegut could turn a mildly depressive, resigned phrase like "So it goes" into a punch line, as he does in Slaughterhouse-Five. And I admired his satiric mind, especially his spirited, inventive attacks on Babbittry and his vaguely comforting variations on the idea of the eternal return. His novels abound in characters who either find themselves slipping back and forth in time, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five, or get caught in some weird space-time distortion, like Winston Niles Rumfoord, the millionaire narrator of The Sirens of Titan.

Who could help but laugh at the postmodern Christian sect he invents in 1959's The Sirens of Titan, the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent? And the way he pokes fun at post-World War II notions of capitalism, optimism, freedom, and the very middle-American (and Calvinist) idea that good luck reveals the hand of God? On the other hand, the ratio of dross to good material also seems much higher than I remember.

John Hildreth's adaptation of The Sirens of Titan for Lifeline Theatre retains what's best about the book. He remains true to the playful, insane plot, in which the eccentric Rumfoord finds himself trapped in a quasi-metaphysical phenomenon that spreads his consciousness in perpetuity through the universe. Traveling the solar system, he witnesses the alien abduction of a movie star, an invasion from Mars, and an encounter with three goddesses on Titan. However, this script is leaner than Hildreth's previous adaptation of Vonnegut: his 2002 Cat's Cradle for Lifeline included more of the novelist's philosophical musings and digressions, to the play's detriment.

Especially in early novels like The Sirens of Titan Vonnegut has a tendency to stop the action and pontificate--perhaps a sign of his insecurity as a writer. In the later novels, most notably his masterpiece, Slaughterhouse-Five, he gives his (sometimes crackpot) opinions to the characters, who are enriched by them. But in The Sirens of Titan it feels like Vonnegut is pushing his puppet, Rumfoord, aside to tell us what to think. Hildreth snips much of this out. When David Cromer adapted the same novel in 1995, he eliminated a lot of it, but at a good two and a half hours his production was still too long. This show lasts barely two hours and feels about right.

Hildreth doesn't deserve all the credit for this bare-bones but carefully done production, however. Vonnegut created the eccentric characters, odd story, and playful way of batting around weighty ideas: free will versus determinism, God the loving father versus God the unmoved mover versus God the necessary fiction. Under Kevin Theis's direction, the cast re-creates Vonnegut's low-key comic style. And everyone has great fun with the book's debt to science fiction. Though Vonnegut doesn't like being identified as a sci-fi writer, the genre did provide his first commercial opportunities. The Sirens of Titan is filled with homages to the pulpy science fiction of his youth in the 20s and 30s, and his characters travel through space with the mindless ease of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, who treat rocket ships like so many Fords and Chevys. Essentially Vonnegut uses robots, rockets, and humanoid aliens to do what satirists have done since Aristophanes: make the most acidic comments on people and society in the least threatening manner possible.

Lifeline also takes a playful approach, using sci-fi elements to soften its own serious message about human pretension. The props might have come from an Ed Wood movie: space travel is represented by toy rocket ships on the ends of poles, and a Martian invasion by a squadron of paper plates spray painted a silvery gray. And just as Vonnegut--early postmodernist that he is--keeps reminding us we're reading about characters in a novel, Lifeline never lets us forget we're watching a low-budget play at a small storefront theater.

For a short work, The Sirens of Titan covers a lot of ground, both literally--the story includes scenes on three planets and one of Saturn's moons--and figuratively: Vonnegut leaps from big idea to big idea like a talkative, well-read, mildly stoned undergraduate. That's probably one reason I have trouble with the book today: he never burrows into any of his ideas, he just moves on. Eventually he contradicts himself, one minute claiming

no outside hand is at work in our universe and the next introducing the comical idea that much of human history is the result of aliens sending mundane messages to one another. Stonehenge, for example, is a communique to a stranded robot: "Replacement part being rushed with all possible speed."

The intrinsic limitations of translating a novel into a play in a small space in about two hours forces Hildreth, Theis, and the ensemble and design team to focus, underplaying or cutting the book's excesses. This production reminded me of Vonnegut's virtues.

When: Through 4/3: Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 5:30 PM

Where: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood

Price: $18-$24

Info: 773-761-4477

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne Plunkett.

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