Love’s a mercy in Vonnegut’s Monkey House

Artists Rep's "And So It Goes": This could be the start of something big

From left: Leif Norby, Tim True, Andy Lee-Hillstrom. Photo: Owen Carey

As a rule it’s a good idea to let people come up with their own nicknames, because when writers do it the result can be awful, as in the ear-wrenching “Bambino” for Babe Ruth or “The Splendid Splinter” for Ted Williams. Even Charles Barkley’s “Round Mound of Rebound” is more a promotional slogan than a true nickname.

Still, I can’t resist suggesting one for Portland actor Tim True: Allstate.

No more than a couple of minutes into Friday’s opening-night performance of Aaron Posner’s new play “And So It Goes” at Artists Repertory Theatre, as True was in the midst of a wry and rambling avuncular monologue in the tradition of Thornton Wilder’s Stage Manager in “Our Town,” I knew I was in good hands. Wherever Posner and his cast were going to take me, I realized, the trip was going to be a good one. True was the master illusionist, playing the crowd with easy geniality, conjuring scenes of human awkwardness and humor and love. All I had to do was relax and enjoy the ride.

There is no real off-season in Portland theater, and there hasn’t been for several years. Still, summer has its own flavor, heavy on outdoor Shakespeare, musical comedies, and works-in-progress. And because the bigger companies in town lean toward a fall-through-spring schedule, Friday’s openings of “And So It Goes” and Lakewood’s “South Pacific,” coupled with Thursday’s opening of “Avenue Q” at Triangle Productions, had the feel of a season kickoff. Along with Shaking the Tree’s opening a week earlier of Caryl Churchill’s “Far Away,” they were the trumpet fanfares for a run of offerings that will soon see the city’s stages crowded with the likes of Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars,” Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold … and the boys,” Richard Nelson’s politically punctuated “That Hopey Changey Thing,” Yasmina Reza’s “Art,” the historical song-and-dance “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” “Othello,” and Dan O’Brien’s investigatory drama “Body of an American.”

But first, Posner’s “And So It Goes,” which had the feeling on its opening night of a benediction: during intermission and after the show, the word “sweet” was bouncing around the lobby like a juiced-up Ping Pong ball. Artists Rep’s production is about as hopeful a kickoff as you can imagine for a new theater season.

The play might be light, but it’s also serious, because its subject is the mysterious powers and vagaries of love. And it might be new, but its verities are traditional: tight script, good acting, approachable characters, recognizable tension, satisfying resolution. Posner based his script on a series of short stories in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s early collection “Welcome to the Monkey House,” and largely by making True’s character, the lovestruck soldier turned amateur actor/director Tom Newton, into the storyteller and interpreter of broader meanings, he makes the series of incidents tie together neatly and (yes) sweetly.

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Posner’s, and Vonnegut’s, stories revolve around the people and passions of the North Crawford Mask & Wig Club, the community theater in a Connecticut town in what seems like the early 1960s, or at any rate before the cultural explosions of Vietnam and Birmingham and Berkeley. It’s a place where it’s not all that surprising that a young soldier would go AWOL when he learns the girl he loves is about to get married to someone else, and hitch a ride home so he could avert catastrophe. And it’s a place where a long walk into an apple orchard, and a not-so-impulsive forbidden kiss, seal the deal.

We’re still in that old, pre-ironic America, a place of bedrock optimism tested but not shattered by the terrors of World War II, a time when personal life is not only personal, but also far more urgent than public life. The play harks back in its feel to the likes of Wilder and William Saroyan and even, with those tall ladders hanging around the back of the stage, to Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B.”; to a time when, although darkness was recognized and acknowledged, tenderness and hopefulness were considered matters of admirable innocence, not naivety.

Sarah Lucht, Leif Norby. Photo: Owen Carey

“And So It Goes” fiddles around with the illusionary line between life and theater, happily criss-crossing the border whenever it feels like it. One entire sketch, based on Vonnegut’s 1961 story “Who Am I This Time?” for the Saturday Evening Post, centers on donning the make-believe like a living mask – the art of filling personal emptiness with the passion of the stage. Alex Hurt plays a painfully shy store clerk by day who transforms himself by night into whatever swashbuckling leading man he’s playing in his current show. The transformation is remarkable, and sweeps the new girl in town (Kayla Lian) off her feet. But can she get daytime Alex to respond during the day the way he does at night?

The theater can do wonders (which include, in this case, a wondrously affectionate spoof of “A Streetcar Named Desire”). On the flip side, a sketch based on a 1962 Ladies’ Home Journal story, “Go Back to Your Precious Wife and Son,” portrays screen illusion as a siren call, matching Leif Norby as an outwardly rational writer (think Arthur Miller) with Sarah Lucht as a black widow spider of a movie queen (think Marilyn Monroe sliding toward Norma Desmond). Illusion can slice two ways.

Posner directs his own script, and while common wisdom has it that that’s a bad idea, he manages both admirably. That shouldn’t be surprising: after all, who knows what the author wants better than the author? The best performances of Leonard Bernstein’s music tended to be the ones that Bernstein conducted; nobody seems to play Grieg’s piano pieces as well as Grieg did. As a director, Posner is keenly attuned to the little turns in his script, the moments of theatrical exaggeration and quiet impact that flesh the thing out. And a good deal of the joy that comes from watching “And So It Goes” comes from experiencing a lovely and supple cast – True, Hurt, Lian, Lucht, Norby, Valerie Stevens as the grown-up girl from the apple orchard, Andy Lee-Hillstrom as the young soldier and the piercingly angry teen-aged son of Norby’s sadder-but-wiser writer – follow the twists and turns so adeptly. Ensemble acting really doesn’t get much better around here, and True, that Everyman as raconteur extraordinaire, is the engine that sets the whole car purring.

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I like what Posner says in his program notes: “Kurt Vonnegut’s story-telling technique is direct, immediate, informal and engaging. He talks about relatively complex things in simple, human ways, as opposed to so much modern literature that talks about relatively simple things in overly complex and obtuse ways.”

So he does. Vonnegut’s sense of fatalism is lurking in this apparently romantic play, even in the shoulder-shrug of its title, “And So It Goes.” But in this case it’s a benign fatalism, a paean to the mysterious powers of love, which takes us to places we dare not dream. We create ourselves. But in a deeper sense, we are created by what happens around us. And what happened around Vonnegut was weird and horrific and astonishing.

In a way the stories that Posner chose to dramatize in “And So It Goes” feel preliminary, the sort of thing a major writer does to clear the way for his life’s work. Yet they also emphasize the humanism, the sense of frail yet real human possibility for passion and compassion, that rides beneath the heartbreaking implausibilities of the likes of “Slaughterhouse-Five” and is sometimes overlooked. While several of the stories from “Welcome to the Monkey House” were published originally in mainstream magazines such as Collier’s and Cosmopolitan, others were from sci-fi pulps such as Galaxy Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, anticipating Vonnegut’s breakthrough blending of naturalism and fantasy to describe the new reality of a century that reinvented destruction and horror.

I look at the hopeful stories in “And So It Goes” knowing that before he wrote them, Vonnegut had been a prisoner of war in World War II, kept under guard in an old underground slaughterhouse locker in Dresden, who survived the city’s science-fiction-like but all too real firebombing and later emerged to what seemed like a moonscape. He and other POWs were forced by their German captors to dispose of the civilian bodies, which were so numerous that eventually the prison crews used flamethrowers, incinerating the human remains in the streets. What force of will must it have taken afterward to write stories about the redemptive power of love, and what a balm might it have been, under those circumstances, to create a young soldier whose most outlandish event, the turning point in his life, is to go AWOL in the name of love! Little wonder that Vonnegut’s characters took to traveling through time. He knew time’s vagaries well.

So, yes, “And So It Goes” feels preliminary, like the start of something – of Vonnegut’s emerging vision, and of another promising Portland theater season. Enter eagerly. With “Allstate” True at the controls, you’re in good hands.

Valerie Stevens, Tim True, Kayla Lian, Alex Hurt: love, actually. Photo: Owen Carey

 

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