Although Kurt Vonnegut is well known for his fantastic and socially relevant novels like “Slaughterhouse Five” and “Breakfast of Champions,” he did briefly venture into playwriting during a declared anti-novel period. The result was “Happy Birthday Wanda June,” Vonnegut’s only play. The show, which ran Off-Broadway in the early ’70s, was lauded for its comic sensibility and eloquent dialogue. LSA senior Josh Izenberg, a longtime Vonnegut fan, discovered the work last year and wanted to bring it to the Basement Arts stage.
“Being a Vonnegut fan has made the experience of directing this play all the better,” Izenberg told TheMichigan Daily. “I feel like I have some sort of insight into some of his themes, since they come up over and over again in his work, but mostly, I think I just bring a great appreciation of his style to the table.”
The play came to fruition through Vonnegut’s interest in Penelope, a character from “The Odyssey,” and his personal distaste for Hemingway-esque heroes who prove their manhood through the killing of other people and animals. The play explores what would have happened if Odysseus had returned home to a world that had gone on and changed without him, but the scenario and the time are wholly changed.
“June” takes place in Manhattan, with two war heroes and sportsmen returning home from seven years in the jungle. Harold Ryan finds that, rather than pining away for his legacy, his wife is entertaining two suitors – a hippie and a vacuum cleaner salesman. Harold and his sidekick (a man who took part in the Nagasaki bombing) are forced to reckon with a world that will not celebrate their homecoming.
“It’s an over the top kind of show,” Izenberg said. “It’s upbeat, although it has its share of very serious moments … but, it’s a realistic show. Something like the events of ‘Wanda June’ could have occurred – perhaps they did one time (aside from the ridiculous image of heaven that presents itself more than once). At first, I feel like the play is similar to a sitcom or spoof, but it soon careens in a completely different direction. It’s out there.”
Like all of Vonnegut’s work, there is an implicit social message to be garnered. Izenberg said, “I hope the audience can understand the call for pacifism, or at the very least, humanity that this play puts forth – and at least consider the argument.”
Aside from bringing these larger-than-life characters to the stage, Izenberg’s biggest challenge was the theater itself. It is his first directing experience. “All the technical aspects of putting up a show, like lighting, sound, set and blocking, have been new to me and I’ve had to rely on the advice show,” Izenberg said. Ultimately however, the goal is to “make sure these huge characters are connecting with each other, creating a cohesive story.