Happy Birthday, Wanda June | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Happy Birthday, Wanda June




Bad Rep Theater Company

at Stage Left Theatre

The recent skirmish in the Persian Gulf has given rise to the revival of several mid-60s to early-70s protest plays, mostly by fledgling companies romantic enough to wish to be included in that now-almost-mythical counterculture but disdaining the nuts-and-bolts research that might compensate for hazy or nonexistent experience of those times. Too often the result has been oddly polite productions--tastefully crafted and carefully thought-out interpretations of plays meant to celebrate the abandonment of such principles. A generation that finds the antics of The Chicago Conspiracy Trial, Remains Theatre's excellent documentary, excessive, ridiculous, or unbelievable cannot grasp the mindless, nihilistic anger that shaped that era and its literature.

But Kurt Vonnegut's 1972 antiwar satire Happy Birthday, Wanda June was one of the more intellectual, less charismatic statements of the time. As such, it suffers not a bit by the extremely intelligent production it's been given by the newly formed Bad Rep Theater Company.

Though the woman Harold Ryan left behind him seven years earlier is named Penelope, his return does not resemble Ulysses'. Nor is Ryan any kind of hero, having inherited much of the brutality but little of the chivalry of antiquity's noble warrior. When this modern Rip Van Winkle reemerges, after being lost in the Amazon for seven years and declared legally dead, he discovers that the gentle and sensitive Dr. Norbert Woodly--a new breed of man--has won the affections of the wife he plans to reclaim. Ryan's first response is to cling all the harder to the now-obsolete principles of masculine behavior by which he has lived, revolving around fucking, fighting, and amassing a fortune. He ignores the subversive suggestions of his own comrade de guerre that the time may have come to change his ways. In a final showdown Woodly, finally pushed to his limits, demonstrates how the new hero fights, defeating the old and incidentally sparing him as well. "This is man to man!" Ryan declares. To which Woodly responds, "It's healer to killer--is that the same thing?"

Happy Birthday, Wanda June is a parable, intellectually rather than emotionally involving. Its many narrative devices are designed to keep the action from growing maudlin or melodramatic; not the least of them are the several irreverent ghosts (including the Wanda June of the title). These distancing techniques could easily be confusing to an audience, and the characters could easily seem hyperbolic in 1991, when the line between hawks and doves is no longer as clear as it might once have been. But the Bad Rep ensemble keep a tight and disciplined rein on their production, remaining within Vonnegut's allegorical conventions while recognizing the changes that have occurred from that time to this.

Dominating the stage is Scott Coopwood, who manages to make the Hemingwayesque Harold Ryan charming despite his deplorable opinions, always suggesting the possibility of his character's rehabilitation. Though some audience members will find Ryan repugnant beyond redemption, it cannot be denied that as Coopwood plays him he has a certain grandeur that commands respect if not endorsement. There is something to be said for a man who goes into the jungle in search of diamond mines and actually finds them. As Penelope, Katie Walsh has an Edwardian style of beauty that does much to explain her character's appeal to a man schooled in the Teddy Roosevelt mode. And Walsh's sly comic timing prevents Penelope from becoming the object--wife/mother/spoils of battle--she's taken to be by her husband and the playwright (playwrights often retain more old-style masculine values than they would wish). Paul Madel brings dignity to the Woody Allenish Dr. Woodly, and 12-year-old Pat Barrett, a product of the famed Piven Theatre Workshop, gives the son, Paul Ryan, a refreshingly unsugary innocence. No less commendable are Alex Baze as Penelope's other suitor, a vacuum-cleaner salesman who made Eagle Scout at the age of 29, and Drew Antzis as Ryan's sidekick, Colonel Looseleaf Harper, a most accurate portrait of the career soldier. (An Army veteran myself, I've never met anyone like the larger-than-life Ryan but plenty like Harper.) The ghosts--Pat McCartney, Liz DeHaven, and Hannah Miller--are also commendable.

Bad Rep's technical staff is something of a mystery. Some people are identified in the program by names drawn from Vonnegut's other works: "Montana Wildhack," for example, and "F. Plastic." Wanda June's set--uncredited even pseudonymously--with its array of stuffed-animal trophies nonetheless strikes just the right balance of menace and mockery. So does Jayce Murphy's sound design, which undercuts a montage of exotic animal calls with Woody Woodpecker's signature cackle. Chris Birt's costumes reflect a keen eye for period detail--1972 is a hard year to pin down--and stage manager Chris Tisone makes it all work in Stage Left's small, shallow performing space. (The owners of that space should seriously consider soundproofing the ceiling. This wasn't the first time a performance was disrupted by deliberate noise from outside and above.)

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