It would be cheap to adapt “Slaughterhouse-Five” into a straightforward play. Half the point of Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war novel — about an American WWII soldier who comes unstuck in time — is that it refuses to play a simple game of cause and effect. Choices have consequences, but nothing controls the entire collage of the world’s meaning. Appropriately, Godlight Theater Company turns the book into a fractured drama, though the results hover between profound and confused.
If anything, playwright Eric Simonson makes Vonnegut’s story even less stable. In the novel, the opening and closing chapters are in the voice of a first-person narrator, who tells us he’s the author of the book. There’s a clear line between the “reality” of the author’s story and the “fiction” of Billy Pilgrim’s, the time-traveling soldier. In the play, however, the narrator is just a nameless man (Ashton Crosby) who pops up to deliver backstory or participate in the occasional crowd scene.
And Billy Pilgrim is three people. When he’s a boy enduring his father’s cruelty, he’s played by Darren Curley. Dustin Olson plays Young Billy, surviving the firebombing of Dresden. And by the time Billy is abducted by aliens called Tralfamadorians — who inspire him to make wild-eyed proclamations back on earth — he’s limned by Gregory Konow.
The split lets the show ricochet through time. Director Joe Tantalo bleeds past into future simply by having Olson cut in front of Curley’s exit. His tightly controlled mise-en-scene always clarifies which era we’re visiting.
It also provides a constant metaphor. Tantalo keeps the entire cast on-stage at all times, watching from the corners until they enter. Similarly, Maruti Evans’ set has the blood-splattered floor and hanging meat hooks of a slaughterhouse — where German soldiers hold Billy hostage — but her lighting transforms the space into everything from a country field to a distant planet.
The idea: Everything in the play is happening at once. Don’t sweat the present moment, since time doesn’t move in a line.
The result can be absorbing, particularly when Tantalo and Evans transition between Billy’s waking moments and his dreams. In one early scene, actors seamlessly switch from regular movement to slow motion, and the lights evolve from basic white to a swirling, multi-colored explosion. In this fantasia, though, Olson still seems caught in the war. His face shows fear and fatigue, suggesting reality is still present onstage. The blending of the two states is captivating.
But mood alone can’t make a show. As polished as it is, the production lacks focus. Simonson’s script runs repetitive circles, eliminating many of Vonnegut’s details in order to rehash tropes about Billy’s worldview.
In response, Tantalo recycles his stage pictures and Andrew Recinos returns to the same snippets of sound.
That may bolster the notion of time being a loop, but without a forward thrust, the play gets dull. There’s never a sense that anything is guiding the story — particularly since the narrator is absorbed into the action — so we’re left with disconnected events.
Some will argue this is how it should be, but even impressionistic narratives need a shape. Vonnegut’s novel is unified by the consistent tone of his writing, which implies that our narrator is always in charge. Without that kind of glue, Godlight’s production breaks apart.