by SOPHIE KERMAN
Despite knowing and loving Kurt Vonnegut, Jr for novels like Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle, fans should not be surprised that he was also a playwright. After all, his witty, cutting dialogue is precisely what makes his novels so readable and so incisive. In Happy Birthday, Wanda June, Vonnegut’s trademark style leaps off the page; both clever and utterly ridiculous, this play pokes fun war, heroism, and male bravado without ever letting the audience forget just how serious these issues really are.
The story is essentially a 20th-century retelling of Ulysses’ return home from the Trojan War. (Wanda June opened in 1970, and while some of its references feel somewhat dated, the play as a whole is startlingly relevant.) Harold Ryan (Kevin Carnahan) has been on an expedition in South America for eight years and is presumed dead, while his wife Penelope (Anna Sutheim) is left to raise their twelve-year-old son (Naveh Shavit-Lonstein) and contend with two suitors vying for her attention. Harold’s unexpected return forces a confrontation not only with the suitors – pacifist Norbert Woodly (Jeremy S. Wendt) and fawning vacuum cleaner salesman Herb Shuttle (John T. Zeiler) – but with a changed society that, to his disgust, seems to value brains over brawn.
Vonnegut’s style of satire begins with two-dimensional characters, each embodying a different philosophy on life and war, and makes them each vividly and grotesquely believable. While Wanda June could have easily slid into flat caricature, the Nimbus Theatre‘s carefully calibrated production is both wildly absurd and frighteningly real. All of the actors are hilarious in their complete commitment to their roles: Carnahan fully embraces the bluster and misogyny of old-school macho adventurer Harold Ryan, while William P. Studer‘s performance as his foul-mouthed companion Looseleaf Harper, who incidentally also dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, is nothing short of comic virtuosity.
And the bizarre humor does not end with Ryan’s entrance back into his old life. While his family and rivals struggle to figure out what to make of him, characters appear from Heaven – filmed and played on the Ryans’ television set – to comment on Harold’s lifestyle and the glory of murder. While the titular Wanda June (Adeline Wendt) extols the painlessness of death and the fun of the endless shuffleboard games in Paradise, SS Major von Konigswald (Song Kim) revels in the perverse pleasure of committing war crimes. (Vonnegut’s sense of humor is nothing if not dark.)
Although Wanda June‘s entire cast is highly skilled (and extremely well-directed by Josh Cragun), the play really begins before the first character even steps on stage. Liz Neerland‘s meticulously designed set tells us all we need to know about Harold Ryan and his household. The rhino head and pole-arm on the wall, the stacks of National Geographic magazines on the bookshelf, and the hidden stash of liquor inside a brown globe all paint a portrait of exactly the kind of man Ryan is; Norbert Woodly’s gift to Penelope – a poster saying “War is not healthy for children and other living things” – encapsulates the central conflict of the play in an incongruous splash of bright yellow.
For all of the joy this production of Wanda June takes in its own broad exaggerations and witty one-liners, it never strays far from the gravely serious questions at the play’s core. Where does our cultural obsession with heroism and glory come from? For Harold, are there ways other than murder to prove he is alive? And after a life philosophy of kill-or-be-killed, is there room to move on? Fortunately, both Vonnegut and Cragun are wise enough to know that these questions are too serious to tackle straight on – but while you are bursting with laughter, the chill at the back of your neck might just tell you to sit up and pay attention, because as funny as it is, Harold’s hawkish ego is not a thing of the past. Peace, everybody.
Happy Birthday, Wanda June by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Presented by the Nimbus Theatre, 1517 Central Ave NE, Minneapolis, MN 55413, October 6-28, 2012. Tickets $10-15. Tickets at http://nimbustheatre.com/discover/reservations/wanda-june.