'Happy Birthday, Wanda June' at Burbage Theatre through Friday

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The face of author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. is familiar to us all; a countenance complete with kindly, slightly sad eyes and a smile that is warm, wry and rueful. I imagine that Mr. Vonnegut must be beaming benignly down at Rhode Island right now, that reason being the splendid production of his play “Happy Birthday, Wanda June”, now being offered up by the Burbage Theatre Company. This is a sharp and exciting show, one that delivers all the author’s goods and provides an evening of inspired and insightful lunacy.

The happiness of this occasion is heightened here by benefit of local artists making good. The Burbage Theatre Company, led by local auteur Jeff Church, began but a few years ago performing some very good plays in the bare bones surroundings of library basements and the like. Their new digs are in the Aurora Nightclub in downtown Providence and that move provides both greater production values and the added value of revitalizing the local art scene.

But back to the show. I haven’t seen this play in some time, but I’m old enough to remember, back in the 1970’s, when one couldn’t throw a stone without hitting a production of either “Wanda June” or “The Zoo Story.” But the time is certainly ripe for a revival and I’m pleased to report that Mr. Vonnegut is just as gleefully subversive as ever, perhaps even more so. It is no longer as hip and fashionable to make comic

mock of warriors and heroism as it was when the play was written in 1970.

“This is a simple-minded play about men who enjoy killing-and those that don’t”, the character Penelope cheerfully informs us at the outset. This is, of course, a good deal more than that. Vonnegut’s humor and his view of the state of the world and beyond may seem slightly skewed but his moral compass is straight on. This is, first and foremost, a modern retelling of the myth of Odysseus’s return from the Trojan War and a merry meditation on war makers and the very idea of war itself. And as the author, as an American GI in WWII, survived the Dresden firebombing, this vision is brought to fruition in a unique way only he could have concocted.

This vision, alternately screwball and insightful, is brought to vibrant life in this production. The direction of Wendy Overly is brisk and focused, a sure hand at the reins providing a wild and spirited ride. The urgency of this tale is well reflected by the crisp pace of the production, the dialogue crackles in the ear. The poetry pops too, though we remember Vonnegut for his mordant wit, the language he employs here is rich and descriptive, this, too, is served up with considerable aplomb.

As this is one of our foundation myths made crazy, quaking ground by the author, so Overly’s driven direction manages to dance nimbly and deliberately through this surreal landscape. The look, too, of this production is stark and funky, eerie lights illuminate an array of trophy heads, some hanging in midair, some flanking a portrait of the lost hunter and warrior and our modern Odysseus, Harold Ryan, The vibe created is of a Warhol designed hunting lodge in a Dali dreamscape.

This post-modern world filled with the follies of mock heroics is populated by a mock Greek chorus of multiple narrators who tell this tale even as they interject their own concerns and stories into the main narrative. These are arch and knowing archetypes assembled here and all are brought to rich and satisfying life.

The jokes are all well delivered and the irony, inherent here in Vonnegut’s lines, is uttered by all with absolute honesty. This is especially true of Andrew Stigler as Harold Ryan. He is splendid as this unflappable man of action and his many little asides to the audience are perfect, utterly ironic without a hint of self-awareness. He’s well matched onstage by his partner in adventure, Jim Sullivan as shell shocked Colonel Looseleaf Harper. Sullivan here is in rare form as a nonplussed dim bulb but there’s true depth to his goofiness too, the soul-stricken look his face assumes as he cradles a broken violin is a thing of beauty to behold.

Allison Crews is warm and winning in the role of Penelope, amidst all this onstage craziness she manages quite well the hard task of maintaining the play’s moral center.

Dillon Medina is delightful as Dr. Norbert Woodley, a suitor of Penelope and the type of intellectual dilettante that is the direct opposite of the savage Ryan. As such he manages to make is always active thought processes seem audible and eloquent onstage. Justin Paige is an appropriately brash and bumbling presence as Herb Shuttle, another rival for Penelope’s affection. Rae Mancini shines in the small but memorable role of Mildred.

Wonderful performances are given by the young actors in this production. Nicholas Griffin makes for an earnest and insightful Paul Ryan. Emeline Easton is winsome and knowing as Wanda June.

Back in America after years lost in the jungle, Ryan and Looseleaf take note of the drastic changes that have occurred to society during their absence. We too, in the audience, notice the shift and sea change in our culture since the play was written. Vonnegut, with great good humor, questions our cherished classic and contemporary assumptions. “Evolution has made you a clown” the Doctor informs the warrior. Ryan insists that he is “man as man was meant to be, a vengeful ape who murders” but acknowledges that he will soon be “obsolete, extinct.” That evolutionary end result has not, alas, occurred. But the hope for Vonnegut’s vision of “a new kind of American hero-the hero who refuses to kill” can be found in the wonderful “Happy Birthday, Wanda June”, a comedy both black and bright, and ultimately life affirming.

“Happy Birthday, Wanda June” now playing at the Burbage Theatre Company, 276 Westminster Street, Providence, through February 5.

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.