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Slaughterhouse-Five, or the Children's Crusade

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Jack Helbig

Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five is a haunting, beautiful novel, part satire, part allegory, part fictionalized history. It's also a novel that seems tailor-made for the movies, because its protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, has a very cinematic problem: "unstuck" in time, he's doomed to live bits of his life over and over again in no particular order. One minute he's a boy being tossed into a pool by his father, the next a young man in a POW camp in Dresden, a moment later a prosperous optometrist living the life of Babbitt in Indiana. Then he's a boy again. And so on.

Sounds like a trick performed every day in the editing room: splice shot a in between shot b and shot c and, voila, Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time. But the connection is deceptive, as director George Roy Hill found in his flawed movie version of the novel, released nearly 25 years ago. Film represents life as an eternal present--even flashbacks are so compelling we perceive them in the present tense--while Pilgrim experiences his whole life as an eternal past: then I was young, then I was in Dresden, then I was married, then I was injured in a plane crash. Even Pilgrim's death, which he undergoes halfway through the novel, is experienced as something that happened before the story began.

That's why Vonnegut's concept works so well as a novel: since print encourages reflection and rereading, it can't help but suggest an eternal "then." Even the most facile reader must pause in between Pilgrim's violent leaps through time and space, either to think about what's happened in the book or to deal with whatever tedious event has just interrupted him--a request to take out the garbage, for example. Vonnegut even encourages such pauses by inserting lots of white space in the text.

Which brings us to Eric Simonson's version of Slaughterhouse Five at Steppenwolf. The beauty of his brilliant, faithful adaptation, which he also directs, is that he re-creates absolutely the eternal then of Vonnegut's novel. Not just its characters and events or even its ultrafragmented structure but the very self-consciousness of the story. Like Vonnegut, he includes a scene in which an alien from the distant planet of Tralfamador explains to Pilgrim the aesthetic behind all Tralfamadorian novels (and Vonnegut's novels): "There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at once." Even the conventions of stage acting--delivering the same lines night after night--suit this novel to the stage.

In fact, Slaughterhouse Five is a very Brechtian novel: Vonnegut constantly breaks the spell of fiction, reminding us of his own presence, popping in from time to time to make dry, darkly funny comments--of which the laconic mantra "So it goes," said whenever anyone dies, is only the most famous. Simonson, no fool, takes full advantage of Vonnegut's Brechtian experiments: he has Robert Breuler step in as a kind of Vonnegut substitute to narrate the story from the comfort of a large desk downstage, complete with portable typewriter, ancient Bakelite radio, and large, squeaky chair. This is a simple stage trick repeated thousands of times before and since Thorton Wilder put the Stage Manager onstage in Our Town, but Breuler speaks so simply and with such crabby Vonnegut-like authority he suckers us in, making the effect seem new (or at least not as old as it is).

This is only one of the many tricks Simonson has up his sleeve to draw us in, even as he reminds us again and again that this is just a play--just as Vonnegut constantly reminds his readers that Slaughterhouse-Five is just a novel. Like so many Steppenwolf directors before him, Simonson draws on the full technical magnificence of the Steppenwolf space: high-intensity lights are lowered from above, characters are lifted high on platforms, images of waves, flames, snow, and prewar Dresden are projected onto a horizontal screen above the set. But unlike, say, John Malkovich and Terry Kinney--both of whom tarted up their adaptations of novels (Libra and A Clockwork Orange) with lots of spectacle (slide shows, beef carcasses, a rainstorm with real water)--Simonson never resorts to spectacle for its own sake. The effect may be dazzling, as it is when hundreds of Italian lights suddenly dangle from the flies, but it always serves the play: Simonson is able to capture the novel's almost instantaneous shifts of time and place. His approach and the genius of his designers, particularly set designer Neil Patel, may explain why this production is the first I've seen at this space that actually fills the whole performing area without manifest effort.

The performances, too, serve the play. Of course, Simonson has also drawn on the acting firepower available to Steppenwolf, employing lots of first-class players, all of whom bring Vonnegut's bizarre characters to life without hotdogging. Matt DeCaro does a star turn as eccentric billionaire Elliot Rosewater, as does Rich Komenich as a 40-year-old soldier named Derby. (Derby would be the story's moral center if this were a more conventional tale, but since it's Vonnegut, he's stupidly executed for trying to steal a teapot from the smoldering ruins of bombed-out Dresden.) And Will Zahrn is a hoot as the brilliant, cracked sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout.

My only complaint about the performances is that Rick Snyder slightly underplays Billy Pilgrim, essentially giving him only two emotional modes: Buster Keaton-ish stoic solemnity and Method-ish crying fits. But then Vonnegut doesn't give Pilgrim many more emotions in the novel, so this isn't as much a problem as it might sound. (In the movie version, Pilgrim has only one emotion: a muted frustration.)

Snyder's trademark A-to-B range may actually be fitting in a play about a benumbed man adrift morally, spiritually, emotionally, and chronologically, forced to live again and again the worst moments of his life: the bombing of Dresden and its aftermath. In any event, Simonson's version of Slaughterhouse-Five is so powerful, re-creates so completely onstage the dark, comic hopelessness of Vonnegut's vision, that I'm not sure an actor with a wider range would have added anything. As it was, the show moved me so much I couldn't speak for ten minutes afterward.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Michael Brosilo.

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