At first glance, Slaughterhouse-Five seems like a maddeningly difficult novel to translate for the stage. It's a morality play (about how carelessly people violate the Golden Rule) embedded in a memoir (about surviving WWII and the firebombing of Dresden) embedded in a science-fiction story (about being kidnapped by aliens, stripped naked, and put on display with a porn star in an intergalactic zoo). To compound the complications, its narrator, Billy Pilgrim, is "unstuck in time," and its author, Kurt Vonnegut Jr., wrote his novel as metafiction—a book aware of itself—and reserved the right to machete his way through all its conceits and drop by to tell us what he was thinking about when he wrote any given passage.
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Adapting it sounds like a job for a war-trauma therapist with a PhD in critical theory and a working knowledge of CGI.
But adapter and director Josh Aaseng found the skeleton key to Vonnegut's brilliantly tangled bowl of literary spaghetti. Despite its formal complications, Slaughterhouse-Five is, above all, plainspoken and unpretentious: Step back, let the language do its work, and we'll all be fine. (This adaptation is also a lesson in why the 1972 film version was such a disappointment. Director George Roy Hill tried to show us images that are impossible to re-create, while Aaseng allows the words to do the heavy lifting.)
One of the most visceral scenes in the play, for example, relies on simple recitation. Erik Gratton, playing the doughy, middle-aged Billy Pilgrim—there are three Billys in this production—is waiting for aliens to abduct him. He becomes "slightly unstuck in time" and watches a war movie in reverse. Instead of Aaseng trying to depict what Billy sees, he places Gratton on an almost entirely darkened stage, describing the plot with the eager and earnest tone of a kid trying to synopsize a movie for his best friend. Bombers full of holes and wounded soldiers take off backward from an airfield in England, he tells us, and fly over France in reverse as bullets are sucked back into their guns:
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of their planes... the steel cylinders were taken from their racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly the women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
The 14-member cast performs with the same plainspoken, almost naive grace. Cobey Mandarino plays the high-school-teacher-turned-soldier Edgar Derby with a sense of gravitas and responsibility for his fellow soldiers that makes his execution all the more tragic after the frivolous theft of a teapot in the smoking ruins of Dresden. Though women are ostensibly marginal to the plot—its bit parts include a daughter, some wives, and the porn star—actors Jocelyn Maher, Sydney Tucker, and Eleanor Moseley fill out the ensemble with a bewildered honesty that gives Slaughterhouse-Five its real ballast. The story is about Euro American men stumbling their way through the 20th century, a moment when they ruled (and perhaps ruined) the world. But the tragedy-within-the-tragedy of Slaughterhouse-Five is that not even they, the ostensible lords of that era, had the slightest idea what they were doing. When the wife of Vonnegut's old war buddy, played with stately indignation by Moseley, sees the writer come to visit, she's quietly outraged. "You were just babies in the war," Moseley says with restrained anger. Vonnegut, played by Jim Gall with a little more bombast than is strictly necessary, promises to dedicate the book to her and call it The Children's Crusade.
The play, like the novel, doesn't try to decide whether the violence it describes was ultimately virtuous or cannibalistic or both. But its characters, and the rest of us by extension, are still stunted and limping as a result. Admitting and describing our collective bafflement—our unstuckness—might be the most humane response.