Saturday, March 22, 2008

Wanda June Lives

One of the duties of being a fan in the fan-atical sense is the need to be aware of every detail of the object of your obsession. Most people (at least people I consider worth conversing with) can name two or three Kurt Vonnegut novels and perhaps have read more than high school English staple “Harrison Bergeron”. I have read all his novels, essay collections, short stories, and Playboy interviews (I can truthfully say I own the July 1973 issue for the articles). When it comes to Vonnegut, I have to have it all.

Thus, when I learned that a local theater production company was putting on his obscure play Happy Birthday, Wanda June, I had to have a ticket. My wife, knowing where to fight her battles, agreed to go and since kids under 18 were free, we made it a family event. I got a few puzzled looks from them when the GPS led us to a middle school parking lot. It seems that The American Century Theater Company operates out of the Gunston Arts Center in Arlington which is one wing of Gunston Middle Shool. Despite the unusual location, the theater portion of the building consists of two professional caliber black-box style stages.

I had seen the film version back in high school when it played the art house film circuit at the Tampa Theater. That movie is just one in a long string of lackluster Vonnegut film adaptations and part of the problem is that its theatrical roots didn't "open up" well on film.

The entire play takes place (except for a few vignettes set in a particularly Vonnegutian version of Heaven) in the apartment of presumably widowed Penelope Ryan. Penelope is a modern take on Ulysses’ wife holding off suitors while waiting for her hero’s return. Vonnegut’s take, as you might guess, is less than Homeric.

In addition to being inspired by the Greek epic, the play is also a very sly dissection of Hemingway-esque machismo. The “hero” Harold Ryan, played with suitable swagger by Bill Aitken, is a trophy hunting Spanish Civil War veteran that has been lost in the Amazon jungle for eight years with Nagasaki bombardier Looseleaf Harper, played by Joe Cronin. He returns home to a reception much different from what he was expecting.

All of the cast is delightful, but the real standout of this production is Kari Ginsburg as the conflicted Penelope. She brings a lot of sexiness and intelligence to a role where it would be easy to play Penelope Pitstop rather than Penelope of Ithaca. And she looks really good in a leopard print mini-skirt.

I am always amazed by the depth of talent in local productions. The set, costumes, and acting are all first rate. Even the minor parts are amusing and very well cast. Our matinee show was only half full which is a shame for such a razor sharp production.

The Artistic Director’s Notes makes it clear that most novelists that attempt playwriting are usually less than successful, and Vonnegut is no exception. That raises the question of why to restage a nearly (and perhaps deservedly so) forgotten footnote to a bigger career. The play has a lot of that acid-tipped Vonnegut wit, and even though it was written over thirty-five years ago, the show still resonates with themes of war, peace, love, and sex. If you can get past the go-go boots and mostly unironic peace signs, there is as much truth in the play today as there was then. Perhaps more so. And that is the mark of genius, especially when such timeless universality appears even in his lesser works.

The show plays one more week and Wednesday night is “pay what you can night”. More information can be found at the official website.

BlatantCommentWhoring™: What does it take to get you to live theater?

Photo credit: Ian Armstrong


Jamy said...

What does it take to get me to live theater? Not much--I just went to a staged reading tonight and I usher at Arena Stage (in DC) so I go often. Still, cheap tickets never hurt.

Impetua said...

Big productions like Spamalot, or free tickets. :)

Sue T. said...

I probably see more plays in a year than the average person does in a lifetime, but for a theater I don't have season tickets to, I'll generally go if (a) it's a show by a playwright I like, (b) it scores a "highest rating" review in the Chronicle, or (c) a favorite local performer is in it. I also accommodate the budget by using services like and (for NY), which sell half price tickets in advance.

The Mistress of the Dark said...

extra cash. I would love to see more of the shows that come through Pittsburgh...but with gas as high as it is and parking and the fact that it usually ends up being an eating out day, I need lots of money :(

yellojkt said...

We've gotten some good deals through That site is good just for the advance word on upcoming shows.