Theater

Happy Birthday, Wanda June @ The Gene Frankel Theater

"What do you want her to do - bring the poor old jaguars back to life with a bicycle pump?" - Herb Shuttle

Happy Birthday, Wanda June

By Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Wheelhouse Theater Company
The Gene Frankel Theater

May 9, 2018

When you walk into Happy Birthday, Wanda June, the first thing you notice is the sign for the bathroom.

That is, if you really need to pee.

It's located through the set, an awkward proposition at first, but one that fits beautifully and comically into the design of the play. "The Ryan Household's Restroom" is printed on a sheet of paper and taped haphazardly like an intentional afterthought.

The second thing you notice is the carpet. The plush beige groundcover stretches from floor to floor, even under the seats of those in the front row. These are not merely audience members, but active participants in the dark comedy unfolding. If you do not dispel and decry toxic masculinity when it's spewing animalistic grunts in an absurd pantomime of sexuality, are you not complicit?

The play begins in total blackout. Subtly, quietly, wild jungle animal noises break through. Not recordings, these are the actors making noises suitable for the "Other Talents" section of their resume. The noises last slightly longer than you're comfortable with, before sudden light illuminates all actors (sans Wanda) standing on stage. Christopher Metzger's talents as a costume designer are immediately apparent as we are transported to 1970s America. The clothing is so pristine and perfectly fitted to each actor that you can't imagine them wearing anything else.

Faithful to his well-known quirky writing and quasi-surreal plots, Vonnegut's play unwinds in an amalgamation of dream-like Heaven scenes, flashbacks, and stories within stories that we're not sure are quite true. The acting and plot are slow and meandering until Jason O'Connell enters as Harold Ryan. O'Connell completely steals the show, but rather than outshine the other actors, he brings them along in his wake. His interactions with Dr. Norbert Woodly, played by Matt Harrington, are a classic back-and-forth between Hawk and Dove, planet vs. president, curer vs. killer. Despite being written in 1970, we feel these themes are all too relevant today.

The wife, Penelope, played by angelic Kate MacCluggage, is controlled by her husband even after his supposed and unconfirmed death. When he comes unexpectedly barreling back into her life, she lacks any resistance other than locking the bedroom door. She's a gazelle to his lion, and he toys with her emotions like a cat plays with string.

This play made me feel increasingly uncomfortable - just like Vonnegut intended. It starts innocently enough, but Harold Ryan is revealed again and again as an animal in a man's body with few redeeming characteristics. Only the adoration of his son allows the audience to qualify his actions. The scariest thing about his character isn't his behavior - crude it seems - but his intelligence. By using words such as "appurtenance" we realize he's far more dangerous than a regular abusive husband. He knows how to manipulate, to wield power, to tell convincing stories. And this is why Man is far more threatening than Lion. Man doesn't have to kill you, but he'll convince you to kill yourself. He'll convince you he's your friend before pushing you out a window.

Meanwhile, in Heaven, poor little Wanda June lives a life playing shuffleboard with Einstein and Jesus. Charlotte Wise is adorable in the role, and will grow up to be a stunning actress. Through her eyes, Heaven seems like a far more desirable place to be than Earth, and if Harold ever makes it there he'll probably destroy everything.

Every moment of this play sizzles with animalistic passion, fear, and energy. Discomfort and nervous laughter become your close friends, and when you leave your first thought will be to rinse off in cold water. It's the Vonnegut we already know and love, played by a brilliant cast, and rendered by the perfect creative team. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Image courtesy Gene Frankel Theater website

Regular tickets: $20-65

My tickets: $9

Purchased through TDF.org the day of the performance. Sat in BB 2 & 4, 2nd row, house right.

Small theater, so all seats are excellent. Chairs in the front 2 rows are wooden and uncomfortable, so I'd recommend sitting a few rows back.

Gene Frankel Theater
Wheelhouse Theater Company
Directed by Jeff Wise

Cast:

  • Craig Wesley Divino (Colonel Looseleaf Harper)
  • Finn Faulconer (Paul Ryan)
  • Matt Harrington (Dr. Norbert Woodly)
  • Kareem M. Lucas (Herb Shuttle)
  • Kate MacCluggage (Penelopy Ryan)
  • Jason O'Connell (Harold Ryan)
  • Charlotte Wise (Wanda June)

Creative:

  • Brittany Vasta (Scenic Design)
  • Christopher Metzger (Costume Design)
  • Drew Florida (Lighting Design)
  • Mark Van Hare (Sound Design)
  • Carly Levin (Production Stage Manager)
  • Greg Uliasz, CSA (Additional Casting)
  • Danielle Verkennes (Associate Lighting Designer)
  • Dan DeMello (Press Representation)
  • Michael Chase Gosselin & Tim Sulka (General Manager)
  • Visceral Entertainment (Executive Producer / Marketing)

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