Book-It Repertory Theatre’s new adaptation of “Slaughterhouse-Five” plays through July 3 at Seattle Center’s Center House.
Kurt Vonnegut did not make it easy for Book-It Repertory Theatre. Nor any of the other stage artists (and filmmakers) who have dramatized (or attempted to dramatize) “Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death.”
Vonnegut’s signature 1969 novel, a cosmic whirligig about a hapless veteran of World War II and the cataclysmic firebombing of Dresden, contains so many wild, other-planetary happenings it was nominated for a Hugo Award — a top honor for works of science fiction and fantasy.
The story time travels in gyrating fashion through various phases in the life of its central character, Billy Pilgrim, a wide-eyed innocent kid in the U.S. Army who grows up to be an adult PTSD-addled optometrist, and finally an eccentric messiah spreading the gospel of the faraway planet of Tralfamadore.
By Kurt Vonnegut, adapted by Josh Aaseng. Through July 3, Center House at the Armory, Seattle Center; $25 (206-216-0833 or book-it.org).
It is quite an achievement, then, for Josh Aaseng (the adapter-director of Book-It’s new “Slaughterhouse-Five”) to have captured so much of the zany and profound gist of this well-read fable, which thanks to Vonnegut’s brilliance has become a crossover classic.
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There were times during Book-It’s two-and-a-half-hour premiere at Center House Theatre when Aaseng’s production seemed overstuffed and frantic. And I missed the intimate pleasure of just reading Vonnegut, and letting his wry, fantastical authorial voice spur my own imagination.
However, Aaseng very imaginatively translates nonlinear prose into theater here. And with a resourceful design team, and 14 intrepid actors, he’s created a cosmic trip that entertains, enlightens, horrifies and scorches — sometimes all at once.
It was ingenious to split Billy into a chorus of three, to get this Everyman’s full spectrum. Robert Bergin is the bumbling GI; Erik Gratton the befuddled middle-aged eye doc kidnapped (or so he believes) by aliens; and Todd Jefferson Moorethe crazed older oracle eager to deliver a universal message of peace, harmony and acceptance of all earthly sufferings — even one’s own death.
“So it goes … ” is a constant, ironic refrain of Vonnegut’s. And possibly the only sane response to the grinding wheel of fortune.
The account of Billy’s “pilgrimage” as a German POW thrown together with a motley band of comrades threads through the play. This “children’s crusade” is an unsparingly harrowing depiction of the absurdity and viciousness of war, and an indictment of the Allies’ wholesale 1945 bombing of Dresden — which slaughtered more than 100,000 people in a city of no strategic value.
Jim Gall is a droll, well-whiskered stand-in for the narrating Vonnegut (who based his book partly on his own war experiences), and Billy’s down-and-out sci-fi writer hero, Kilgore Trout. Jocelyn Maher, Eleanor Moseley and Sydney Tucker pitch in as the women (mother, wife, daughter, fantasy lover) in Billy’s life.
As for the voyeuristic aliens who display Billy and a movie starlet (Tucker) in their zoo, they’re terrific: a crew of green, long-necked, computer-voiced hand puppets (designed by Ben Burris and Zane Exactly, and manipulated by the actors).
As the action constantly flips around the space-time continuum, we are carried along by Catherine Cornell’s chameleonic scenic design of simple, mobile elements (beds, chairs), enhanced by Kent Cubbage’s array of lighting effects. The sound and music designs (respectively by Matt Starritt and Myra Platt) are also mood-setting.
There isn’t as much sex as in the novel (one of the most-banned books in America), but there is a fair amount of (sometimes squirm-worthy) full nudity. The latter is not gratuitous, but not always necessary when so much else here animates the essence of “Slaughterhouse-Five,” and in less literal ways.