“You’ll either love it, or push it back in the science-fiction corner,” opined the New York Times in its 1969 review of Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war sci-fi novel Slaughterhouse Five. The same can probably be said about its theatrical adaptation by Eric Simonson, now getting its first West Coast production fourteen years after its World Premiere at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Theatergoers unfamiliar with Vonnegut’s dense, epic tale, or those whose tastes run towards realistic, linear storytelling rather than the avant-garde or experimental may choose to pass on Action Theatre’s intimate staging, despite its generally fine acting and imaginative direction by Tiger Reel. On the other hand, Vonnegut fans will want to check out how adapter Simonson manages to compact Slaughterhouse Five down to an intermission-free ninety minutes of live theater.

Frequent readers of StageSceneLA reviews can likely guess which camp this reviewer falls in. Avant garde is not my cup of tea, and given the many choices I am offered each month, I generally avoid anything experimental. Though Slaughterhouse Five did not change my mind about this particular genre of theater, Reel’s ingenious direction and the performances of Don Schlossman, Gretchen Koerner, Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper, and the rest of the cast are worthy of a look-see.

A deliberately non-linear Slaughterhouse Five travels nonstop through time—to its hero Billy Pilgrim’s World War II imprisonment in a Dresden slaughterhouse whose underground location saves him from extermination in the city’s massive firebombing, to Billy’s kidnapping by extraterrestrial aliens from the planet Tralfamadore (where he is exhibited in a zoo alongside porn starlet Montana Wildhack), and to Billy’s future as an optometrist in Ilium, New York.

Despite having prepped for the production by reading several online synopses and analyses of Vonnegut’s novel, at some point I got lost along the way. Simonsen’s adaptation relies a bit too much on Vonnegut’s narrative voice, performed here by a rather too deadpan Raymond Donahey seated above the audience the better to observe the action onstage. Also, Donahey’s repeated need to shine a flashlight on his script throughout the performance proved a distraction.

On a much more positive note, Reel’s direction and set/sound design are as imaginative as they come. Working in tandem with topnotch lighting designer Matt Richter, costume designer Becca Fuchs, and composer Ryan Johnson, whose original score is a haunting standout, Reel manages to do on a shoestring budget what a filmmaker would need a couple hundred million dollars to do, bring Vonnegut’s fanciful world to life. It’s truly a wonder what lighting and sound design can do with a minimalist set.

The Studio Stage Theatre has been reconfigured as a thrust stage, an effective decision, turning the audience into participants and not just observers, and it’s to director Reel and his fellow designers’ credit that we pretty much always know exactly where we are, whether on the far-off planet of Tralfamadore or in the humdrum Ilium or imprisoned in the Dresden slaughterhouse. Reel creates vivid images throughout the production, including a clever use of projections (the “preshow entertainment” is a series of World War II black-and-white movie trailers which Boy Billy, Young Billy, and Billy sit watching entranced) and a final tableau whose antiwar statement makes an undeniable impact.

A mostly very good cast give all-around committed performances. Besides standouts Schlossman (Billy Pilgrim), Koerner (Valencia) and Mongiardo-Cooper (Roland Weary, Campbell), the ensemble is made up of Warren Davis (Edgar Derby), A.J. Diamond (Young Billy Pilgrim), Brian Helm (Col. Chetwynde, Kilgore Trout), Claudia Melatini (Barbara), Tom Metcalf (Eliot Rosewater, Fritz), Owen Sholar (Boy Billy Pilgrim, Newsboy), Lily Vonnegut (Montana Wildhack, Lily), and Tee Williams (Paul Lazzaro, Bertram Rumfoord). All but Diamond and Schlossman play multiple roles, and on a side note, the fine Vonnegut is novelist Kurt’s daughter. Michele Wolfson is stage manager, Amy Mucken is assistant director.

Clearly, Slaughterhouse Five will not be for everyone, but those who have read and enjoyed Vonnegut’s novel, and in particular those for whom Vonnegut’s novel has become a passion, will likely want to give Action Theatre Company’s stage production a look-see.

Action! Theatre Company, Studio-Stage Theatre, 520 N. Western Ave., Los Angeles.
–Steven Stanley
October 7, 2010

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