Slaughterhouse Live

From the Playboy Blog, 2/6/07


Last week copy editor Joseph Westerfield gave the stage version of Slaughterhouse Five at 59E59 Theater a glowing review. I was equally excited going in, but not so enthusiastic coming out. Joe knows a lot more about theater than I do, but as an avid Vonnegut fan I didn’t think the play did justice to the masterpiece novel.

Staging the absurdist time-traveling life of Billy Pilgrim in 90 minutes is not an easy task. Pilgrim bounces from one era to another so rapidly that he often doesn’t know where he is, so it’s tough for a theatergoer to follow along without all of Vonnegut’s narration. Add to that the fact that the small ensemble cast changes roles constantly and that props and scenery are left to the imagination, and the audience is befuddled. In the confusion, Vonnegut’s best jokes and most powerful lines get lost. This is no fault of the actors. I agree with Joe that the cast is outstanding. They shift smoothly from role to role, speaking in British accents one minute and German the next. Deanna McGovern deftly handles every female role in the story (though Joe and I both agree that she’s a bit attractive to pull off the aging mother and portly wife). Unlike Joe, I thought Gregory Konow as the older Pilgrim was the weakest member of the cast. Konow’s Pilgrim struck me more as a wide-eyed flower child than a quirky aging father. 

The real problem with the play is more fundamental than the acting, directing or staging (the spare set and theater-in-the-round arrangement actually capture the intimacy of the story perfectly). But the assumption that Vonnegut’s work can translate from print to stage is flawed from the start. I was afraid I’d get lost in the whirlwind, so I cheated. I re-read the book the night before the play. That helped me follow the plot, but it also made me realize that no other medium can substitute for Vonnegut’s words on the page. Even the 1972 film version of Slaughterhouse Five, which has the advantage of changing scenery and actual props, fails to capture the author’s satirical voice and fatalist themes. In my opinion, you can’t get the essence of Vonnegut—the balance of gravity and whimsy, the barely controlled madness—without reading every word, and no actor’s reading can replicate the tone of the author’s ink.

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