Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Review: "Slaughterhouse-Five"

Kurt Vonnegut grappled fatalistically with the horrors of World War II in his 1969 sci-fi novel "Slaughterhouse-Five" -- and Eric Simonson's stage adaptation at Curio Theatre Company absorbs much of Vonnegut's text and faithfully depicts the major events of the book, says critic Jim Rutter.

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

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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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