Staff photo/Hayley Day
                                Dennis Busse and ElseDora Arendt, 13, rehearse a scene in heaven.

Staff photo/Hayley Day Dennis Busse and ElseDora Arendt, 13, rehearse a scene in heaven.

Vonnegut play questions masculinity, heroism at San Juan Community Theatre

The San Juan Community Theatre is showing “a simple-minded play.”

Don’t worry, that’s not a jab; it’s the first line of “Happy Birthday, Wanda June,” which debuts on the weekend of Friday, Feb. 16 at the San Juan Community Theatre.

In one of about five plays Kurt Vonnegut Jr. ever wrote, the fiction writer recycles themes from many of his famous novels, like the realities of war in “Slaughterhouse Five,” and the effects of science on society in “Cat’s Cradle.”

Plus, there’s that famous loose Vonnegut tongue, which makes the performance for mature audiences.

The roughly two-hour play, with intermission, is “about men who enjoy killing, and those who don’t,” according to the character Penelope Ryan, played by Manda Dietz.

Penelope’s husband, Harold, unexpectedly returns home after eight years of big-game hunting in the jungles of Africa, in which he was presumed dead.

He personifies negative stereotypes of masculinity — violence, sexism and egotism — and is played by Manda’s real-life husband Flash Dietz.

Harold is the foil to Penelope’s new fiance, Woodly, who is a peace-sign waving physician and played by Douglas Schirmer. Woodly claims that the modern hero will no longer be the parade-honored soldiers of the past, like Harold, but “a man of science and peace, like me.”

Though it was first performed in 1970, about a year after the release of “Slaughterhouse Five,” similarities to present societies’ continued struggles with defining masculinity aren’t lost on the theater’s staff.

“It was written 50 years ago, but it feels like it could have been written yesterday,” said Nathan Kessler-Jeffrey, the theater’s newly hired executive artistic director.

For instance, what would Vonnegut think of the present, where young boys still play with toy guns and film action heroes are portrayed by six-foot tall, muscles?

The performance, which includes a nine-person cast and roughly eight-person crew, marks the winter comedy for the theater, though director Tony Vivenzio admits it’s more of a satire.

“I’m not sure how much of a comedy it is,” he said. “It’ll be an interesting ride for people.”

The ride includes a heaven, where a Nazi soldier, played by Dennis Busse, and the play’s title character, a child named Wanda June who is played by ElseDora Arendt and Kira Clark, form a shuffleboard team.

You see, there should be no fear of death in this play’s heaven as everyone, including the “dead animals, soldiers and people who went to the electric chair,” are happy because they play shuffleboard all day. Hitler plays shuffleboard. Mozart too.

And since dying “isn’t as bad a sting of a bumblebee,” there is also no reason to feel bad to murder — be it inflicted on humans or animals.

So, in the classic Vonnegut satirical tone, along with quick, disjointed timelines, and even quicker wit, the play leaves audiences in both laughs and deep thought; just like when it was first performed in the 70s.

“We haven’t evolved much,” said Vivenzio.

Audiences will be forced to piece two seemingly unrelated storylines together, as well as question their own stereotypes on masculinity and heroism. Plus, the performance will answer the all-important question: who would eat a dead child’s birthday cake?

Check out the play to find out.


What: “Happy Birthday, Wanda June” by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

When: 7:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 16 through Saturday, Feb. 17; 2 p.m., Sundays, Feb. 18 and 25; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, Feb. 22 through 24 and March 1 through 3.

Where: Gubelman Theatre, San Juan Community Theatre, 100 Second St., Friday Harbor

Cost: $22 for adults; $11 for student reserved; $5 for student rush at the door only; and Thursdays are “pay-what-you-can” at the door.

Contact: Order tickets at www.sjctheatre.org or call the box office at 360-378-3210, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesdays through Fridays, or 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturdays.

 

Staff photo/Hayley Day
                                John Cornell, who plays the character Herb Shuttle, and Manda Dietz rehearse act one.

Staff photo/Hayley Day John Cornell, who plays the character Herb Shuttle, and Manda Dietz rehearse act one.

Staff photo/Hayley Day
                                Myles Posenjak, 10, plays the main character’s son.

Staff photo/Hayley Day Myles Posenjak, 10, plays the main character’s son.

Staff photo/Hayley Day
                                Carrie Jewett plays the main character’s ex-wife.

Staff photo/Hayley Day Carrie Jewett plays the main character’s ex-wife.

Staff photo/Hayley Day
                                Kira Clark, 10, recites a monologue.

Staff photo/Hayley Day Kira Clark, 10, recites a monologue.