Review: 'Slaughterhouse-Five'

By Jim Rutter

Despite science fiction’s immense popularity in books and film, it has never enjoyed similar esteem on stage. Instead, playwrights since Jules Verne’s era have embraced psychological realism as the means to examine life.

Little, I’m sure, felt more real for Kurt Vonnegut than watching a division of Panzer tanks cut his fellow soldiers to ribbons.  And he, like many post-war writers, dealt with the horrors of World War II by closing his eyes and clutching the steady hand of fatalism. 

Vonnegut grappled with this trend in his 1969 sci-fi novel Slaughterhouse-Five. Eric Simonson’s stage adaptation at Curio Theatre Company absorbs much of Vonnegut’s text and faithfully depicts the major events of the book. 

Billy Pilgrim (Steve Carpenter) becomes “unstuck in time,” after being kidnapped by a race of aliens. They lend him their power to see in four dimensions, and teach him that “no one ever dies, because they are always alive in the past.” These words provide early, though deceptive, comfort. Like another famous sci-fi writer, Vonnegut could have built a religion on this epigraph. 

Curio’s riveting Philadelphia premiere of this play eschews special effects and employs compelling performances, simple, though substantive lighting, and Patrick Lamborn’s harrowing original score and sound design to compress time and space and carry us across the universe and forward and backward in history. Like time, the stage pulls apart at its joints. Pilgrim travels from the firebombing of Dresden, to a childhood memory, scenes of courtship, his capture and internment by German troops, and even the moment of his death. 

Director Jared Reed’s even tempo and Leigh Mumford’s lighting give the illusion that these events happen simultaneously. Costume designer Aetna Gallagher dresses Pilgrim in a pair of pajamas, rendering him a perpetual somnambulist who’s always present, but never there. The remainder of the stellar ensemble wears khaki trousers and shirts to play soldiers on both sides. 

Despite the range of locales and historical events depicted, a sense of singularity pervades the production. Reed’s pacing stirs emotions by refusing to linger on any event, no matter how significant. Carpenter’s narrator sees everything at once; he responds to each moment with a face contorted in muted agony, and an even, whispering tone -- the only valid response to an unalterable existence. 

The production culminates in a moment of subtle theatrical power: A single death seen through the prism of fate forces the realization that, however comforting, fatalism excuses any abomination.

"Slaughterhouse-Five,” presented by Curio Theatre Company, 4740 Baltimore Ave. Through March 3. Tickets $15-$20. Information: 215-525-1350 or