Theater: Slaughterhouse-Five

I don’t have a blog category for theater, so I’m tagging this with the “Life” category, which seems appropriate. Theater is an experience; it’s something you do as much as something you view. This seems particularly true for the adaptation of  Slaughterhouse-Five I saw over the weekend with Jenn and our friend Lisa, down in Hollywood. We saw it at Studio Stage, a tiny venue on Western Avenue, in a theater-in-the-round set up so tight that at times the actors were laying at our feet and brushing past us as they entered and left the stage. It made us feel like part of the action.

Yes, it was that Slaughterhouse-Five, the famous Kurt Vonnegut novel, funny and dark, the one featuring Billy Pilgrim, the man “unstuck in time.” If you haven’t read it, go read it. It’s great stuff. Like the book, the play ricochets through time from Billy’s childhood to his middle age, from his war experiences to his elderly days, from Earth to Tralfamador. It’s science fiction and it’s history, comedy and tragedy, very much my kind of thing. There was a movie made of it in the 1970s, which I barely remember except that I don’t recall it capturing the spirit of the book. It’s one of those novels that’s kind of unfilmable.

And yet here we were watching it on stage, and they did a surprisingly good job of capturing it. It was by no means a lavish production, but theater can be amazingly resourceful at conveying a sense of place or action just by implying it, and this production pulled that off in spades. Using three actors to play Billy Pilgrim — a boy, a young man, and an older man — the production used sound effects, lighting tricks, and physical action to signify jumps through time from one part of the story to another. (I particularly enjoyed the scenes on Tralfamador, where the cast speaks in unison to convey a hive-mind to the confused older Billy.)

The ensemble cast was versatile; most of the actors play multiple roles, some of them affecting British, German, and various American accents (and a few of them speaking German at times). Some of the acting was broader than others, but ultimately I felt the entire cast contributed nicely to the story’s unique tone. In the end, it felt like the book I remembered reading, which is pretty amazing. I’m no expert when it comes to theater, but I really enjoyed the performance.

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