Monday, April 16, 2018

Happy Birthday, Wanda June

If there is an afterlife, I hope Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., has had the opportunity to look down and watch the Wheelhouse Theater Company's excellent production of his hilarious, incisive farce, Happy Birthday, Wanda June (directed by Jeff Wise with vitality, creativity, and respect). I'm sure Vonnegut would be thrilled with the show, although he would likely also be depressed at how timely it remains.

Kareem Lucas, Matt Harrington,
Kate MacCluggage, Jason O'Connell,
Craig Wesley Divino, Finn Faulconer
(not pictured: Charlotte Wise)
Photo: Jeremy Daniel 

Harold Ryan, a man's-man's man's-man, has been missing for eight years. His wife, Penelope, and son, Paul, have kept the living room the way he left it--full of animal heads and jungle rot. (The fabulous set was designed by Brittany Vasta). Harold has been declared dead, and Penelope has finally moved on. She is engaged to a pacifist obstetrician named Norbert. Paul still believes Harold is alive, even though Penelope tells him, "Not even Mutual of Omaha thinks so anymore." However, Paul is right.

Harold comes home, full of bravado and raging masculinity, bragging of all the humans and "other animals" he has killed and all the women he has bedded. ("If I'd ever been to the South Pole," he says, "there'd be a hell of a lot of penguins who look like me.") He's horrified to find that Penelope not only doesn't want him, but that she is engaged to Norbert, about whom he says, "I could carve a better man out of a banana."

The plot is not the thing in Wanda June; it's all about the characters and their interactions. Other characters include Colonel Looseleaf Harper, the pilot who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki,  missing with Harold for those long eight years; he is overwhelmed by life and constantly uncertain. Herb Shuttle, another beau of Penelope's, is a vacuum cleaner salesman thrilled to meet Harold, who he sees as a mythic hero. Major Siegfried von Konigswald, a Nazi killed by Harold during the war, brags that he killed ten times as many people as Harold did. He acknowledges that Looseleaf killed many more but says, "Harold and me--we was doing it the hard way."

Harold is a gigantic-er-than-life character and a horrible man. In order for Wanda June to work, he also has to be charming and sexually attractive. Jason O'Connell manages all of Harold's dimensions in a tour de force performance that would merit a Tony if the show happened to be on Broadway. Kate MacCluggage as Penelope, in a less showy role, is every bit as good. Both actors do that fabulous juggling act of being farcical while also inhabiting three-dimensional humans with real dreams and feelings.

It helps that Vonnegut, whose life was permanently marked by his experiences in WWII, wrote such an open-hearted, textured farce. Every character is ridiculous; every character is sympathetic; no one is a complete hero or villain. Wanda June is a delayed-release show, where you laugh nonstop while watching it yet remain genuinely moved by it afterward.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket; 4th row center)

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