Vonnegut reaction

Godlight Theatre Company beams Slaughterhouse-Five from the page to the stage.

NOVEL IDEA Tantalo steers a Vonnegut classic into three dimensions.

NOVEL IDEA Tantalo steers a Vonnegut classic into three dimensions. Photograph: Amy Vonvett

A well-worn rule of drama is that passive characters make poor protagonists. But with Billy Pilgrim, the hapless, oddly sage antihero of Kurt Vonnegut’s classic 1969 war novel Slaughterhouse-Five, passivity is the point—and a barbed one. An American POW imprisoned in Dresden in 1945, Billy survives the Allies’ horrific firebombing of that German city, and is then duly employed to “mine” heaps of barely identifiable human remains.

If these events aren’t enough to shake Billy’s faith in human agency, his alien abduction cinches the deal. “Vonnegut experienced the Dresden and World War II stuff,” says Joe Tantalo, who is directing a stage version of Slaughterhouse-Five at 59E59. “But the Tralfamadorians and everything—what is that?”

Tantalo is referring to the novel’s toilet plunger–shaped extraterrestrials, who take Billy outside of time to show him the unchangeability—and essential interchangeability—of past, present and future. “Is it just a guy telling us a story, inserting science fiction into his horrible war experiences,” Tantalo wonders, “or does he actually believe that he was traveling in time?”

His question is rhetorical, and best answered theatrically. It’s the kind of challenge that Tantalo’s scrappy Off-Broadway troupe, Godlight Theatre Company, has taken on repeatedly in recent years. With its spare, nimble stage adaptations of A Clockwork Orange and Fahrenheit 451, Godlight has all but cornered the market on high-ingenuity, low-tech stage adaptations of 20th-century sci-fi classics with dystopian themes. (Tantalo admits that last year’s Blindness, adapted from the José Saramago novel, may have gotten away from him, but the material was right in line with the company’s mission.)

Adapter Eric Simonson, the Tony-nominated director of 1993’s The Song of Jacob Zulu, jumped at the chance to revisit the stage version of Slaughterhouse-Five he had originally created for Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre in 1996. “I was in touch with Vonnegut when I wrote the adaptation, and he loved it,” Simonson says. “So I asked him, ‘What do you think about us publishing the adaptation?’ He said he didn’t think any other theater company could do it, and he was right—I had written an adaptation that was tailor-made to my direction. It would say, ‘Billy floats midstage in a yellow BarcaLounger,’ and in my head I knew how I would do that, but it wasn’t all on the page.”In reworking his adaptation, Simonson’s most significant change—one that helps cement the book’s gimlet-eyed cubist perspective—is a simple matter of casting: In this version, three actors play Billy at different points in his life, whereas just one actor had played him at Steppenwolf. “This way, all time is all time, as the Tralfamadorians say,” notes Tantalo. “Billy can essentially see all the moments of his life at once.”

The director’s in-the-round staging is set in Dresden, on a blood-spattered slaughterhouse floor where a Vonnegutesque narrator (Ashton Crosby) rifles through scenes of Billy’s life with the abrupt fragmentation of a restless radio listener switching stations. While the rough outline of Billy’s tale parallels Vonnegut’s own experiences, its fantastical elements represent the author’s attempt to tell his war stories in distanced, deglamorized and nonheroic terms.

“When Vonnegut came back from the war and wanted to write about it, he had that very important moment with Mary O’Hare, the wife of his old friend Bernard O’Hare,” Tantalo says. “They wanted to talk about their remembrances of the war, and she got so pissed. She said, ‘You’ll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them.’ ”

If Vonnegut’s book honored Mary O’Hare’s anger with its ambivalence about a relatively just armed conflict, the timing of its publication also meant that it reflected the darkening American mood during the Vietnam War. Vonnegut, who died last year, lived to see America’s willful descent into another military quagmire.

“In bringing to light the Dresden bombings, he was suggesting there’s a potential in all of us that needs to be checked,” Simonson says. “That’s not a new idea, it’s an eternal idea, and it applies to all wars. This is why Slaughterhouse-Five is as fresh today as when it was published.”

Indeed, if Vonnegut’s bleak view is correct, the book will retain a lamentable relevance. “One line that’s not in the play is where the Vonnegut character is telling his friend he wants to write an antiwar book,” Simonson says. “And his friend says, ‘Why don’t you write an antiglacier book?’ ”

Slaughterhouse-Five is at 59E59.